CRAWFORD | Wildcats Dogpile! First NCAA regional title is sweet for Kentucky
The Kentucky baseball team set up a Super Regional showdown with Louisville, but its 10-5 regional title win over N.C. State deserves a look all its own. Eric Crawford provides it.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Welcome, University of Kentucky, to the Madness of Spring. They’ve had good baseball at UK. But I’m going to call Monday night (and Tuesday morning) in Cliff Hagan Stadium the program’s true baptism into College World Series fever – and not just because rain delayed the start of the regional final by more than two hours.
For the first time in school history, the Wildcats have reached the Super Regional, and they did so in the kind of crazy, tension-filled, drawn-out, scorecard scratching affair that you get when a regional reaches its seventh game. UK has been on the wrong side of regional eliminations before, but now, in front of the largest crowd ever to watch a game at Cliff Hagan Stadium, the home team made the plays, finished the comeback, commenced the dogpile.
This, simply put, is what all the fuss is about.
The Wildcats are coming to Louisville, to face a Cardinals team playing in its fifth Super Regional and third straight. But I’m not going to talk about that rivalry induced madness here.
This game, a 10-5 win over North Carolina State, and this Kentucky team, picked to finish tied for fourth in the Southeastern Conference in the preseason before playing for a share of the league title on the final day of the regular season, these things deserve a story of their own.
Kentucky baseball, under first-year coach Nick Mingione, and behind the right arm of SEC pitcher of the year Nick Hjelle, has arrived.
This is a legitimate Top 10 team. The Wildcats finished the season ranked No. 9 in the RPI. Had the selection committee seeded them properly, they’d be getting ready to host a Super Regional, not travel down Interstate 64 having to try to win one on the road.
No matter. After losing their second NCAA game in Lexington, the Wildcats won twice on Sunday, then waited out a 2 hour, 20 minute rain delay Monday night to scrap with an N.C. State club trying to avoid a final-day regional elimination for the second straight year.
Instead, with the game on the line, it was the Wildcats who played like veterans, who made the big defensive plays, who got the timely hits, and most of all, who had the best pitcher on the field. While N.C. State was melting down – walking nine batters, hitting two more, and committing four errors – Kentucky stayed cool.
No doubt, a home crowd that is quickly warming to the rhythms and thrill of college baseball helped in that effort. The crowd of 5,005 stayed through the pregame rain delay. It stayed through the final pitch, which came at 11 minutes after 1 a.m.
“I cannot believe these people are still here,” Mingione said. “. . . I’m confident they helped us win that game today. And I couldn’t be more appreciative.”
Hjelle, who threw 107-pitches in Kentucky’s tournament opening 15-8 win over Ohio on Friday, got the ball with two outs in the sixth inning and Kentucky trailing 5-4, but with N.C. State threatening more. That ended the pitching drama for Kentucky.
Hjelle, let’s see, how should I put this? He didn’t mess around. The 6-11 sophomore faced 10 batters, and recorded 10 outs, five by strikeout. He threw 35 pitches. Only eight were out of the strike zone. Of the 10 batters he faced, he threw seven first-pitch strikes.
He came into the game to replace Logan Salow, the Wildcats’ closer, who found himself pressed into service to get out of a jam with one out in the fourth inning. Once Hjelle went into the game, you figured if he didn’t work out, that was it for the Wildcats. They’d had a good run, but ran out of pitching.
Hjelle, somehow, still had plenty left in the tank.
“I was surprised he was that good,” N.C. State Coach Elliott Avent said. “He was outstanding actually. … I thought he might have been better tonight than he was Friday night.”
Moreover, the pitching rotation wasn’t as haphazard as it may have looked. It actually was Mingione’s plan. Salow, the closer, coming in early, then letting Hjelle finish up. Monday would generally have been Hjelle’s bullpen day after a start. He’d throw about 35 pitches, just to stay sharp. He started lobbying on Saturday. He probably didn’t have to lobby hard. He went into the game and threw 35 pitches.
“So this was a normal day,” Mingione said. “He had been lobbying and he knew he wanted the ball and with Logan throwing yesterday and coming back, we liked to put him in the middle because Hjelle has closed games before, right? Last year, he set the freshman record for saves, right? I think he had eight as a freshman. Being his bullpen day and with everything on the line, when you have the SEC Pitcher of the Year and he is set up to throw a bullpen anyway, you might as well use him.”
Might as well win a regional, yes. Mingione has made many right moves with this team, but his best trait is an unflagging positivity. Even after his team lost its first three games this season, he never let negativity creep in.
The Wildcats trailed 2-0, then 5-4, but they never have the look, body language or demeanor of a team that is discouraged. Offensively, they did whatever they had to do. Mainly, that meant being disciplined at the plate.
“At one point, you know we had six hits and 10 runs. Let that soak in. Right? We had six hits. We had more runs than we did hits. Right?” Mingione said. “That’s not normal when we did not hit a home run. So, you guys have heard me talk about offense? I like pizza. Right? You’ve heard me give the pizza example. So, when you think of a pizza there’s eight different slices. So, when you think about offense it’s like that pizza. Hitting is only one slice of that pizza. There’s strike-zone discipline, which we did an awesome job of. There’s the HBP. There’s situational hitting. There’s bunting. There’s base running. There’s base stealing. All of these things go into offense. And we showed our offense tonight. We showed, we fired our bullets and we ate all of the different slices of pizza because it was going to take everything.”
It took five RBI from the bottom three of the order (three of them from Marcus Carson) and a big two-run double from Kole Cottam in the seventh inning.
But it also took coaching, and I don’t think you can say enough about what Mingione, the SEC coach of the year in his first season, did this year.
A lot of coaches talk a good game – though few probably talk as good a game as Mingione. But this guy has backed it up, in a variety of difficult situations in perhaps the best conference in college baseball. The very first person he thanked in his postgame news conference was his predecessor Gary Henderson and his staff, and that’s something you don’t see very often.
He gave these players the vision for what happened at Cliff Hagan Stadium Monday night, right down to practicing how to dogpile. That’s right, the Wildcats left nothing to chance – though I’m not sure Hjelle, after becoming a dominant starter this season, ever figured he’d be at the bottom of the pile.
“I mean, got caught on the bottom of that and, you know, that’s a lot of weight coming down so I hadn’t necessarily practiced that exactly,” Hjelle said. “But I’ll never forget the image in my head of looking at the dugout and seeing all those guys just rush at me. And the feeling of being crushed right there was so worth it. Just having that image and that memory in my head was just so cool.”
Mingione stood back and watched.
“Every time that I’ve been part of a championship – and the Lord has really blessed me, I’ve been part of a bunch -- what I do is I first go and shake the hands of our opponents and be respectful to them. Then I go sit in a chair and I go watch,” Mingione said. “I watch them celebrate. I couldn’t control myself – I was crying because I’ve been around these guys for what is it, 11 months now? I know how hard they have worked in all areas of their lives, not just baseball. If you were to ask me what is your favorite thing as a coach as far as on the field goes, it’s to celebrate my players win a championship, because I believe this with all of my heart: They have just done something that has never been done in the history of the baseball program and we’ve been playing baseball over 100 years here.
“They’re going to be able to tell their kids, their families, their wives and hopefully the baseball thing works out and they will be able to play 10 years in the big leagues, but if it doesn’t and they go into business, I promise this equips them. This goes way deeper than just baseball. This makes them believe that they can do things that have never been done before – and that’s really powerful.”
In a few days, the Wildcats will come to Louisville for a Super Regional that will be a celebration of college baseball like this state has never seen.
But this night belongs to the Wildcats and Mingione and athletic director Mitch Barnhart and those thousands of fans who kept singing “Sweet Caroline” even after the public-address music stopped. And it belongs to a program that after decades of toil not only in the land-of-the-giants SEC but in a state and at a school where basketball is king, took its long-sought spot on college sports’ springtime center stage.
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