BOZICH | Kentucky or N.C. State? No, Louisville players (wisely) want Omaha
Louisville advance to its third straight NCAA Super Regional by rallying three times to defeat Xavier, 8-7, Sunday night.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It’s silly to say that a Louisville victory over Xavier in the NCAA Baseball Regional was supposed to be easy. Nothing is easy in this tournament.
Ask North Carolina, Stanford, Arizona, Baylor or any talented team already eliminated.
But it wasn’t silly to suggest a Louisville victory seemed inevitable.
The Cardinals had beaten Xavier in nine of the last 10 meetings between the programs, including 13-4 this season. One computer formula put Louisville’s win probability at 81 percent. Another projected a 7-2 Cardinals victory. U of L won 23 games in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Xavier won 13 in the Big East.
Inevitable took time.
Louisville fell behind once, twice, three times before rallying with two runs in the seventh to defeat Xavier, 8-7, at Jim Patterson Stadium Sunday to win a regional for the fifth consecutive season.
Josh Stowers drove in his fourth run with a double to right. He scored the game-winner on a single by Logan Taylor. Lincoln Henzman closed the regional with 2 2/3 innings of hitless relief pitching, striking out three.
"It was a fun game," U of L coach Dan McDonnell said. "It was like a boxing match, back and forth, back and forth."
The drama resumes next weekend. The Cardinals will host a Super Regional against either Kentucky or North Carolina State. The Wildcats and Wolfpack will settle the Lexington Regional Monday at 7 p.m.
The Louisville players said what they had to say. They don't care if UK or N.C. State wins. They just want to get Omaha for the College World Series.
"We're not losing (in the Super Regional) three years in a row," said Henzman, a veteran of stinging Super Regional losses in 2015 and 2016.
Stowers acknowledged the truth: "All the fans want to see us play Kentucky."
Louisville defeated all three regional visitors – Radford, followed by Oklahoma, followed by Xavier. But this one made McDonnell sweat and make four pitching changes. Three U of L fielding errors and several base-running mistakes put the Cardinals on the brink of playing again Monday.
Xavier put two men on base in the first. Didn’t score. Xavier put two on base in the third. Didn’t score. Xavier put two on base in the fourth – and moved ahead, 2-0, on a single to center by catcher Nate Soria.
Xavier barely had time to high five. Louisville rallied for three runs in the bottom of the third. Devin Hairston singled to left. Colin Lyman walked. Both runners stole a base. Stowers launched a three-run homer 10 feet over the right-center field wall. Stowers was not certain the ball would carry, racing all the way to second base before the umpire told him it had cleared the fence.
"I thought it was a double," he said. "Maybe a triple."
Xavier did not surrender The Musketeers’ ninth-place hitter, Ethan Schmidt, is no power hitter. He came to the regional with two home runs this season. Make it three. Schmidt tied the game with a mammoth leadoff home run that sailed 15 feet past the berm in left-center.
Then Louisville started doing more to hurt Louisville than Xavier did to hurt the Cardinals. Like loading the bases with nobody out in the fifth and failing to score.
That happened after Drew Ellis popped out to first, and Devin Hairston lined out to center field. Hairston’s liner should have been a sacrifice fly.
It wasn’t. Devin Mann streaked for third as soon as the ball was hit. He was doubled off second before Colby Fitch was able to tag and score from third. McDonnell argued otherwise, but a television replay showed the call was correct.
The Cardinals added to their base-running issues with a fielding misplay. Relief pitcher Riley Thompson threw a pickoff attempt into right field, sending Xavier’s Will Larue to third base with one out in the sixth. He scored when Soria fooled the Cards with a two-out bunt single.
This Louisville team did not win 49 of its first 59 games by flinching. Xavier was now three deep into its sagging bullpen. The third best bullpen arm on a team that finished third in the Big East was unlikely to silence McDonnell’s offense.
Here’s what happened: Lyman took a pitch off his right hip. Stowers pushed a bunt that first baseman Schmidt misplayed. Jake Snider tied the game with a single to left. Logan Taylor singled to left to put Louisville ahead by one. Brendan McKay doubled the lead with a soft infield single to short.
Oops. Wasn’t enough. Xavier re-took the lead in the seventh, scoring three runs on two hits. The go-ahead run scored on a throwing error by Mann, the Cards’ second baseman.
Again, the Cardinals responded with those two runs in the seventh. Henzman did the rest, striking out Joe Gellenbeck, Xavier's clean-up hitter to end the game.
"It's not easy," McDonnell said. "But these guys have made it look easier than normal."
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