It was win or go home and the Wildcats won. Big.
Trailing 2-0 after two and a half innings, top-seeded Kentucky put up eight runs over the next four frames to beat North Carolina State 8-6 and force another win-or-go home game Monday night. It’s the first time the Wildcats have ever made it to a fifth game in a regional since the NCAA adopted its current format.
And the Wildcats’ head coach would love to share it with another huge crowd.
“This was an unbelievable atmosphere tonight,” Nick Mingione said. “Our players were like, ‘Coach this was unbelievable.’ When you’re dealing with 18-23 year olds, the crowd matters. The fans matter.”
Nearly 2,500 showed up early Sunday afternoon to watch the Wildcats pound Indiana, 14-9. “We had people who were here all day with us,” Mingione said, and this, a day after a school record 4,742 watched Friday’s loss to the Wolfpack.
“I’m going to make a plea to the city of Lexington to break a record we’ve already set,” he said with his eye on Monday’s championship game. “It means the world to us. If I never ask another favor the rest of the year, I’m going to ask them to show up.”
The Sunday night crowd of 3,261came to life when Kentucky tied it in the bottom of the third on an RBI single by Zak Reks and a sacrifice fly by Kole Cottam; in the fourth it was a solo home run by Marcus Carson and in the fifth, an RBI single by Riley Mahan, who’s picked a great time to heat up.
Coming into the regional, Mahan had been 0 for his last 16. He’s his old self again – at least, for now.
“The SEC Tournament didn’t go too well for a lot of guys,” Mahan said. “The coaches did a good job of seeing to it that we kept a level head.”
Not too low and not too high, even now, with Mahan sizzling. So far this weekend he’s piled up nine hits in 16 trips and 11 RBIs.
The Cats hung up four in the crucial sixth inning, scoring on two RBI singles, a bases-loaded walk (another RBI for Mahan) and a wild pitch to make it 8-3.
The Wolfpack ate into the deficit in the top of the seventh when their home run leader, Joe Dunand, rocketed a shot out of the yard – his 18th – with two men on, to cut the UK lead to 8-6 and pull the Pack back into the game.
That’s when the call went out for UK relief specialist Logan Salow which, believe it or not, NC State coach Elliott Avent was happy to see, what with another game coming up Monday night.
“We to got their closer,” Avent said. “I thought that was big.”
Salow was big, as well, pitching two and two thirds innings of perfect baseball with four strikeouts. He even survived a ninth-inning rocket shot that hit off his leg and bounced directly to Evan White at first base.
It was the 12th save for Salow, who pitched in a similar situation four years ago in a regional loss to Louisville. “It hurt,” Salow said of the game back then. “It hurt a lot. I don’t want these guys to feel that same pain.”
The loss had to be painful for the Wolfpack, which would have wrapped up the regional with a victory Sunday night. But the NC State players didn’t sound as though they believed the momentum had irrevocably shifted.
“We’re playing our best baseball right now,” Dunand said. “Today was today. Tomorrow is a new day.”
And it’s the last day for one of these teams. The question is, who has the most pitching left in the tank? Neither coach was ready to talk about it, although Mingione said he believes everyone save for freshman leftie Zach Thompson, who got the win Sunday afternoon over Indiana, could be available.
Salow said pitching coach Jimmy Belanger had warned the staff before the regional began. “He said, ‘Guys, get ready for chaos, get ready for the most messed-up bullpen situation that you could possibly think of,’ “ Salow said.
“He’s been preaching it to us, that you have to win every inning.”
Which is what the Wildcats did Sunday – through 18 innings.
“If you look at today as a whole and (you think) it doesn’t define the Kentucky baseball team as a whole,” Mahan said, “then you need to take another look at our team. Today was awesome.”
They’re hoping for one more awesome day.