In a season that saw Kentucky turn the Southeastern Conference upside down, a relief pitcher started, a closer came on in the middle innings and the SEC pitcher of the year finished up for the Wildcats, who won their first NCAA regional championship with a 10-5 victory over North Carolina State.
“They just did something that’s never been done in the history of the baseball program,” said first-year head coach Nick Mingione. “And they’ve been playing baseball for over a hundred years here.”
It seemed like it was going to take a hundred years to get started. Thanks to a rainstorm that delayed the game two hours and 20 minutes, it happened both on Monday night and early Tuesday morning before a record announced crowd of 5,005. Some may have fled during the rainstorm but only in the temporary outfield bleachers were there more than a few empty seats.
And the fans were in full throat when the Wildcats needed them the most.
With the game in the balance, just after Kentucky had taken a 7-5 lead in the top of the seventh, it was time to sing “Sweet Caroline,” first made popular by the Boston Red Sox and now a staple at ballparks all over the country.
But thanks to a slight glitch in the audio system, the song – with the help of the record crowd – took on a life of its own.
With an NC State batter at the plate, suddenly the sound system was playing a few more notes, so the crowd resumed singing. The plate umpire called time, turned and glared at the press box. The music stopped. The singing did not.
For the next three innings, during strategic moments, hundreds of fans unleashed their vocal chords, belting out the song a cappella, trying to unnerve the NC State batters.
“If you don’t think, ‘Bah, bah, bah!’ doesn’t help,” said Mingione, quoting the most popular sing-along lyrics, “you’re crazy.”
The Big Blue Nation stuffed the reserved seats, the portable bleachers down the leftfield line and The Cliff, to cheer on a UK team now two victories from the College World Series.
Mingione chose to start Zach Logue, who was the Saturday starter for much of the year but had assumed a relief role late in the season. In what everyone knew would be a contest that came down to bullpens, Logue burned up 3.1 innings, leaving with the game tied at 4.
State had jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead in the second; the Wildcats answered with four in the top of the fourth for a 4-2 lead; the Wolfpack tied it in the bottom of the inning and then took a 5-4 lead in the bottom of the fifth.
It would be the last run of the season for North Carolina State.
Kentucky roared back and took the lead with those three runs in the seventh, the frame that triggered all that singing. The first run scored when State shortstop Joe Dunand booted a ground ball, allowing Tristan Pompey to score.
Then catcher Kole Cottam smashed a double off the blue monster in right centerfield, chasing home two more. “I was watching the right fielder,” said Cottam, “and once he started running I said, let’s go, and turned the burners on.”
That was all Sean Hjelle needed. And he liked the singing.
“Usually, I try to block that out,” he said of the crowd’s involvement, “but when the entire stadium was singing, ‘Sweet Caroline,’ I got chills.”
The SEC’s top pitcher, Hjelle has been UK’s Friday night starter all season; on Friday he pitched the Wildcats past Ohio U in the regional opener, throwing 107 pitches. But Mingione didn’t hesitate to bring him on in relief of closer Logan Salow, who had taken over for Logue in the fourth.
The Cats added three more runs in the top of the ninth and then watched Hjelle strike out the side, triggering a Big Blue celebration that included a “dog pile,” something they had practiced starting in the fall. At the bottom was the 6-foot-11 pitcher.
“That’s a lot of weight coming down on me,” Hjelle said. “I’ll never forget the image of looking at the dugout and seeing all those guys just rush at me. The feeling of being crushed right there was so worth it.”
Mingione took it all in. After shaking hands with State’s coach, he found a place to sit and just watch.
“I couldn’t control myself,” he said. “I was crying. I know how hard they’ve worked. If you ask me, what’s your favorite thing as a coach? It’s to watch my players celebrate a championship.”
Cottam was at the bottom of the pile with Hjelle. “It was incredible,” he said, “and we’re open for a few more down the road.”
He could have meant the immediate future in a broad sense, or he could have meant, literally, their super regional opponent.
Next up: a trip to Louisville. The Wildcats know the way; they play there every year. In fact, they lost there earlier THIS year, before avenging that loss in Lexington three weeks later. But at stake this time are much more than bragging rights.
Two wins would mean UK’s first trip to Omaha, which would prove Mingione prescient. He predicted his program would do things that have never been done here. The Wildcats already proved him right by forcing a win-or-go-home game 5 and then coming through with the victory.
Four straight losses to open the season seem so long ago and yet, after dropping the series at North Carolina and then a single game at Liberty, Mingione was convinved his team could be special, just by how hard they played through each loss.
“I knew we had really good players,” he said, “I knew we had really good coaches and I just knew – this could be possible.”
Unlikely, but possible. And now, so is a super regional championship. There just might be more dog piles – and singing – ahead.