UK baseball advances to first super regional in program history – The Courier-Journal
UK players Logan Salow, Sean Hjelle and Kole Cottam break down regional final win over NC State.
Jon Hale/The C-J
LEXINGTON, Ky. – As ace pitcher Sean Hjelle struck out the side in the ninth inning of a 10-5 win to send the UK baseball team to the first super regional in program history he could not help but notice a record crowd singing in unison to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
And when the final out was recorded, he made sure to take a moment to remember the view of his teammates rushing from the dugout to mob him in celebration on the mound.
“The feeling of being crushed right there, it’s so worth it,” Hjelle said. “Just having image and that memory in that head, it was just so cool.”
Pitching on what was normally the “bullpen day” in his seven-day throwing program, which usually includes around 30 pitches, Hjelle recorded the final 10 outs of the win without surrendering a hit two days after throwing 107 pitches in Kentucky’s regional opener. He needed just 35 pitches to fulfill his allotted role in the victory.
“Actually, I felt pretty good about everything,” NC State coach Elliott Avent said. “I felt good when he came in. I thought after throwing 107 pitches Friday, I didn’t think he would be that good … I thought he was outstanding.”
After winning three elimination games in a row the past two days to survive and advance, the Wildcats will now face Louisville in an NCAA super regional next weekend at Jim Patterson Stadium with a spot in the College World Series on the line.
Hjelle’s memorable performance capped what ended up being a night of lasting moments for first-year coach Nick Mingione’s program.
The start of the game was delayed by more than two hours due to rain, and the two teams traded leads three times.
With all but one available Kentucky pitcher having already thrown in the regional, Mingione and his assistants hoped to be able to transition from starter Zach Logue to normal closer Logan Salow to Hjelle, the Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year, on the mound.
That strategy played out according to plan but few other things in the game went to script.
NC State took an early lead on a two-run home run from left fielder Brett Kinneman in the second inning, but UK center fielder Marcus Carson tied the game in the fourth with a two-run double. And RBI groundout from Connor Heady and an RBI single from Evan White later in the frame gave UK a 4-2 lead.
The Wolfpack, playing as the home team, immediately answered in the bottom of the fourth with an RBI double from second baseman Will Wilson and a sacrifice fly from third baseman Evan Mendoza then retook the lead in the fifth when center fielder Josh McLain’s double to center field was mishandled by Carson, allowing Stephen Pitarra to score from first base.
After Hjelle came on to escape a two-on, two-out jam in the bottom of the sixth, Kentucky’s offense answered with a three-run seventh inning to take control of the game.
Designated hitter Luke Becker started the scoring with a grounder that was mishandled by NC State shortstop Joe Dunand. Two batters later catcher Kole Cottam slugged an opposite-field double off the right-field wall to score Becker and White for a 7-5 UK lead.
Kentucky added three insurance runs in the ninth on another fielding error from Dunand that scored Becker from third, an infield single from Carson to plate second baseman Riley Mahan and a throwing error from NC State second baseman Will Wilson to plate third baseman Tyler Marshall.
Hjelle took it from there with three strikeouts in the ninth as an announced crowd of 5,005 sang “Sweet Caroline” in unison because the public address system was forced to cut off the song as play resumed.
As players celebrated the win by first dogpiling on the mound, something Mingione had instructed the team to practice as early as fall scrimmages, and later climbing the center field wall to greet fans stationed on the outfield deck, Mingione took the microphone to thank fans for their role in the regional championship.
“It was incredible, and we’re hoping for a few more down the road,” Cottam said.
With the win, Kentucky advances to its first super regional since the NCAA adopted the current bracket format in 1999.
The Wildcats will face Louisville, the tournament’s No. 7 overall seed. The Cardinals won three games in a row to win the NCAA Tournament’s Louisville Regional this past weekend.
But for now, Mingione and his team will focus on checking off another first for the program.
“They’re going to be able to tell their kids, they’re going to be able to tell their families, they’re going to be able to tell their wives,” Mingione said. “Hopefully the baseball thing works out and they’re going to 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 they can do things that have never been done before, and that’s really powerful.”
Email Jon Hale at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JonHale_CJ.