The record crowd had barely settled into the seats at Cliff Hagan Stadium Saturday night when the game changed, for good.
Playing in the second round of the NCAA baseball regional, Kentucky had loaded the bases with one out in the top of the first inning against North Carolina State freshman right-hander Michael Bienlien, who was facing the Wildcats’ slugging second baseman, Riley Mahan.
Bienlien jumped out to a quick 0-2 count on Mahan, who then fouled off the next two pitches. Bienlien missed badly outside with a fastball and suddenly, Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent was making his way to the mound.
Just a few minutes after it started, Bienlien’s day was done. Avent would make a decision that ultimately led to State’s 5-4 victory, pushing he Wolfpack into the winner’s bracket and forcing Kentucky to have to win three games in two days to claim the regional title.
On came senior lefthander Sean Adler, who gave up a sacrifice fly to Mahan but after that, confounded the Cats with his sharp slider, at one point retiring nine straight.
Avent had planned on starting Adler against the Wildcats, but needed him to close out the 12-inning marathon win over Indiana Friday night.
“He told me, ‘I’m ready to go tomorrow,’” Avent said, but he did tell Adler to stay loose.
“I told him to be on call,” Avent said, and when he saw Bienlien giving in to some first inning jitters, he made his move.
“Obviously, that was a great Kentucky lineup,” he said. “We felt like we couldn’t get behind.”
Meanwhile, the Wolfpack got busy roughing up Kentucky starter Justin Lewis. The first two batters the Pack sent to the plate in the bottom of the first took him out of the yard for a quick 2-1 lead, which the Wildcats erased in the third when Pompey crushed a home run off the scoreboard in left centerfield.
With Adler cruising on the mound, State stole a page from the Kentucky playbook by attacking with two out in the bottom of the fifth.
Evan Mendoza laced a fading line drive to center field; UK senior Marcus Carson tracked it and got the leather on the ball but it went through him for a two-run triple and a 4-2 lead.
Andy Cosgrove followed with an RBI single and the Wolfpack was up three after five innings.
The Cats got one back in the top of the seventh on an RBI single by Mahan, but left two more on base – reminiscent of the Friday win over Ohio U, which saw Kentucky strand 15. The Saturday total was nine. Head coach Nick Mingione said he’s not concerned that it’s becoming a trend.
“I’ve been part of teams where you can’t get guys on base,” he said. “The fact that you’re getting guys on base is the first step. The next step is to knock ‘em in.”
Adler gave way to a reliever after the eighth. He struck out five, giving up just two runs. “I think he was keeping everybody off balance,” Pompey said. “We should have done a better job at it.”
Evan White had a pair of base hits but still was impressed. “He mixed locations and speeds well. He kept us off balance. You have to tip your cap to him. He did a great job.”
It was Adler’s sixth victory in 12 decisions this year. “That’s a really good hitting team,” he said. “You have to be careful where you miss. You have to miss in the right spots.”
White put a charge into a pitch – and the crowd – with a ninth-inning home run but the Cats would not scratch again.
NC State’s victory disappointed the Cliff Hagan Stadium crowd of 4,742, breaking the record set earlier this season in the win over Louisville.
So now, the Wildcats move on to the “elimination” bracket, where they’ll face Indiana Sunday at 1 p.m. ET. Winner gets NC State and will have to beat the Wolfpack Sunday at 7 and again Monday at 7 p.m.
Lefthanded freshman Zach Thompson is the likely starter Sunday afternoon; he’s the only pitcher remaining on the roster who has started a game this season and was one of Kentucky’s best arms down the stretch.
As for who would start in the regional final, should the Cats get that far, they’ll worry about that later. Their uphill climb begins Sunday afternoon. At that point, it’s win or go home.
Mingione said he told his team, after they were eliminated from the SEC tournament in Hoover, there would come a point where they must win.
“I told them nothing in life will come easy,” he said. “It’s not supposed to come easy. I told them when we get this done it’s gonna be that much sweeter.”