CRAWFORD | More than a rivalry: Louisville, Kentucky set to make Bluegrass baseball history
Louisville and Kentucky, top 10 rivals, will stage the biggest weekend in Bluegrass baseball history when they meet in the NCAA Super Regional at Jim Patterson Stadium.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – All right, I guess we’re going to do this.
Louisville vs. Kentucky. College Baseball. Jim Patterson Stadium. Winner to the College World Series. Perhaps the biggest baseball weekend in Bluegrass State history.
Rivalry. When Louisville and Kentucky play, in anything, rivalry usually is the first thing mentioned. Probably not in this best-of-three. There’s much more at stake than just bragging rights.
And the rivalry between these baseball programs? It’s different. They compete hard. They’ve met in an NCAA regional (U of L eliminated UK in the rain in 2014). Before Kentucky beat Louisville 11-7 on April 18 in Cliff Hagan Stadium, it hadn’t beaten the Cardinals since 2014.
But with midweek games, you can’t read too much into any of them.
This weekend, it will be fire against fire. Aces against Aces. Cardinals against Wildcats. Louisville wants to avoid a third straight Super Regional elimination on its home field. Kentucky wants a first-ever trip to the College World Series.
A year ago, on Twitter, UK fans were laughing at me when I was Tweeting about Louisville baseball. After Kentucky won its first NCAA regional on Monday night, I daresay now they get it. Kentucky fans are engaged. They will get into Jim Patterson Stadium, somehow. They always do.
They split their two games this season, each winning at home before a record crowd. Expect Louisville’s records to fall again this weekend. The Cards drew 6,210 for the game at Jim Patterson Stadium in April.
Louisville has been one of the most complete teams in college baseball all season. Kentucky may be the best-hitting team left in the field, outside of No. 1 Oregon State, and has the SEC pitcher of the year.
Asked after knocking off Xavier who they’d rather play between rival Kentucky and conference rival N.C. State, Louisville players wouldn’t bite on the question Saturday.
“Everyone wants to see us play Kentucky,” Josh Stowers said.
“It doesn’t matter who comes in here,” Lincoln Henzman said. “We’re not losing three years in a row.”
Does that qualify as trash talk? With Louisville vs. Kentucky, everything does.
But here’s what’s different about this rivalry. There’s an edge in basketball. Louisville fans don’t like John Calipari. Kentucky fans aren’t what you would call fond of Rick Pitino. The football rivalry isn’t quite as heated, but Kentucky fans aren’t fond of Bobby Petrino. Louisville fans weren’t too happy to lose in an upset last November.
Even in women’s basketball, Louisville’s Jeff Walz has rankled Kentucky fans for downplaying the series. Kentucky’s Matthew Mitchell has peeved Louisville fans by winning so often.
But baseball? This state is relatively new to college baseball. Louisville has been one of the better programs in the nation in the past decade, though it has yet to make its mark on the College World Series. Kentucky has been good, but mired in one of the toughest baseball conferences in the country.
The problem with these two teams is that I defy anyone in either fan base to say they don’t like the baseball team of the other side for any legitimate reason other than the uniform they’re wearing (which, I know, is reason enough, but humor me).
You’re going to tell me you don’t like Dan McDonnell? A guy who unfailingly says the right thing, who treats the game and his players and opponents with respect, a guy who can not only win with grace but can lose with it? Nobody hates Dan McDonnell.
“If we played 100 times, we’d probably win 50 and they’d win 50,” McDonnell said of the Wildcats after his team beat them 5-3 in April for Louisville’s sixth straight win in the series.
And Nick Mingione? He’s practically Dan McDonnell with a blue hat. He’s a little more fiery than Mac, but there are some similarities.
Before the two teams met for the first time this season, Kentucky shortstop Connor Heady, a senior from Prospect, said the Wildcats, “made it a goal this season to be the best team in the state.”
That takes on new and magnified meaning now. Kentucky has Heady and brothers Brett and Tyler Marshall out of Trinity. Louisville is powered by three stars from Lexington: Devin Hairston, Logan Taylor and closer Lincoln Henzman, as well as first baseman Michael Bollmer from Byran Station.
Game 1 starters should be set. Kentucky’s Sean Hjelle threw 35 pitches Monday night but was scheduled to throw that many in the bullpen anyway. I’d expect he’s still on schedule. Louisville has its best player and ACC player of the year, Brendan McKay, rested to start Game 1. I’d expect to see him.
By the time first pitch rolls around, plenty of animosity will have been generated. The fact is, neither program was done many favors with this particular draw.
The other fact is, one of them is going to the College World Series.
And then there’s this. I’ve stayed up all night writing about college basketball national championships. And BCS bowl victories. And a Heisman Trophy winner. Now, to set up an NCAA Super Regional. So, with two Top 10 teams, we’re a college baseball state now, too?
All right, then. Play ball.
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