There were missed opportunities, lots of runners left on base, late-inning mistakes by pitchers but in the end, it didn’t matter. Kentucky had done something it’s never done before: Win a first-round regional baseball game since the NCAA adopted its current format. The Wildcats beat Ohio U 6-4 and now move into Saturday’s second round.
Perhaps more important, the Kentucky got a typical effort on this Friday afternoon from its usual Friday night starter, Sean Hjelle, who took a shutout into the eighth inning. Three straight Bobcat hits, the third a home run by Rudy Rott, meant Hjelle’s day was done but he had burned valuable innings.
Chris Machamer pitched a shutout eighth. Stopper Logan Salow came on in the ninth and gave up a run before picking up his 11th save, although he had to retire Rott with a man on to close things down.
“We had the tying run at the plate,” said Bobcats coach Rob Smith. “That’s all you can ask for.”
In the end, Kentucky was just too much. It has been for most of its opponents all year, what with the best offense in the Southeastern Conference and the league’s pitcher of the year.
“They’re obviously as good as advertised,” Smith said. “It’s relentless. Every guy in the lineup is a difficult out.”
And the Bobcats helped Kentucky’s cause by issuing nine walks, a complement to the Wildcats’ 13 hits. UK stranded 15 runners but it still put enormous pressure on the OU pitchers, who talked about it in their dugout.
“We were relating it to football,” said starter Michael Klein, “time of possession. They were getting in and out real quick. We were out there a long time in the heat.”
And it got hot early, in the bottom of the first inning. With two strikes and two outs, outfielder Zach Reks pulled a double into the right-centerfield gap. Luke Becker and Riley Mahan followed up with singles, making it 2-0 Wildcats.
“I thought our offense was relentless,” said head coach Nick Mingione.
Two outs? Two strikes? No problem.
“We like to believe we’re the best team in the country with two outs,” Mahan said. “A lot of teams like to think their inning’s just about over. We like to think we’re just getting started.”
The Cats added runs in each of the three middle innings, building a cushion that allowed Hjelle to unwind at his 6-foot-11 best.
“It’s relaxing and comforting,” he said. “My job is to get swings and keep the team in a position to win. Playing behind the best offense in the world, it’s pretty comforting.”
Unless you’re in the other dugout.
“The thing I‘m impressed with is his pitch-ability,” OU’s Smith said. “You’d think he’d be a fastball oriented guy. But his ability to keep the ball down, change speeds, get double plays when he needed them showed why he’s one of the best pitchers in the Southeastern Conference.”
Kentucky turned two double plays behind Hjelle, frustrating the Bobcats and helping it nail down its first opening-round tournament victory since the NCAA adopted its current format.
“The first game is pivotal,” Mahan said. “We’re in the winner’s bracket now. That’s huge.”
It’s the first step toward the goal they haven’t been afraid to embrace and discuss all year: A trip to the College World Series, in Omaha.
“It’s what we’ve talked about since day one,” Hjelle said. “Coach said ‘Omaha’ then. You come out here, you get an image in your head of what it might be. “
The banners, the crowd, the NCAA logo everywhere – all of it will be there Saturday, when the Wildcats try to take their next step – toward a regional championship. Omaha? That’s at the end of the trail.