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Cats fall behind early as Louisville grabs upper hand with 5-2 win in Super Regional series opener

By Keith Taylor
KyForward Senior Sports Writer

LOUISVILLE — Louisville grabbed the upper hand in its three-game series against rival Kentucky with a 5-2 victory over the Wildcats Friday afternoon at Patterson Stadium.

The Cardinals (51-10) take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series going into Saturday’s contest that will feature ace pitchers Sean Hjelle (Kentucky) and Louisville’s Brendan McKay. In order to have a shot at reaching the College World Series for the first time in school history, the Wildcats will have to win two straight to earn a prestigious ticket to Omaha, starting against Louisville’s top pitcher.

Kentucky first baseman Evan White rounds third base after hitting a solo home run in the ninth inning of the Wildcats’ 5-2 loss to Louisville Friday at Patterson Stadium in Louisville. (Britney Howard/UK Athletics)

“Brendan McKay is going to be one of the top couple of picks in the (Major League Baseball Draft),” Kentucky coach Nick Mingione said. “Sean Hjelle, the SEC Pitcher of the Year. It’s going to be a very, very special game with two quality arms.”

Down 1-0 in the series, the Wildcats (43-22) faced a similar scenario after falling to N.C. State in the second round of the regional tournament last Saturday before winning three straight to advance to the Super Regionals for the first time in school history. Mingione believes a repeat of last weekend’s feat is possible despite Louisville holding the home-field advantage.

“Everything that happened last weekend, to have our backs against the wall and to have to win three straight games, that’s never been done before,” Mingione said. “We’re going to have to try to do something tomorrow that’s never been done before. Anytime you have experience in doing something, it helps. When you haven’t done something before, it makes it that much more difficult. Our players, there’s no question they’ll be able to draw back from their experiences that we had this past weekend.”

Although a newcomer to this stage of the tourney, Kentucky made a solid showing against the the Cardinals, making their fifth straight appearance in the Super Regionals. Louisville managed just four hits off four Kentucky pitchers, but had just two after smacking a double and a single in their first two at-bats as part of a two-run outburst in the opening inning.

Despite the lack of offensive firepower, Louisville produced the biggest hit of the contest when third baseman Drew Ellis connected on a three-run homer with two outs in the fifth inning to give the Cardinals a 5-0 lead.

Ellis had been mired in a slump before his decisive shot that came after McKay, recently named national Player of the Year, just missed sending a shot over the left-field wall with runners at first and second.

“I was struggling a little bit (at the plate), but I trust my ability and I work extremely hard at what I do,” he said. “I was trying to do a little too much at times in the regional, but I felt a lot of comfortable coming into today. My batting practices have been a lot better and I am seeing the ball better. To get that swing off and barrel the ball, it was good for me. I put a good swing on it and I was excited.”

Mingione said the blast by Ellis proved to be too much for the Wildcats to overcome going into the final four innings.

“It was a crucial point in the game and I thought it was the deciding point in the game,” Mingione said.

Kentucky collected seven hits against three Louisville pitchers, including three off Cardinals starter Kade McClure, but failed to muster a run until the ninth inning when the Wildcats crossed the plate twice, highlighted by Evan White’s solo home run to right field to open the inning.

White and Tyler Marshall paced Kentucky’s offense with two hits apiece.

Despite the late surge, Louisville closer Lincoln Henzman, a Lexington native, fanned pinch hitter T.J. Collett to end the inning. McClure struck our six batters and scattered just three hits during his time on the mound.

Louisville manager Dan McDonnell said McClure accepted a challenge from the coaching staff.

“We challenged him to set the tone for today and all weekend,” he said. “Trusting Kade — that was the biggest thing, we trusted Kade today.”

Down 1-0 and facing a do-or-die scenario, Kentucky will have to rely on its recent experiences to carry it through the remainder of the series.

“We’ve done it before,” Kentucky’s Kole Cottam said. “Pretty recently, in fact, so that’s kind of going to help us and motivate us. We know what we have to do. We have to play one inning at a time, one pitch at a time and everything, hopefully, will work out.”

Louisville Super Regional schedule

Game 1: Louisville 5, Kentucky 2
Game 2: Saturday, noon, ESPN
Game 3: Sunday, noon, ESPN or ESPN2 (If necessary)

Keith Taylor is a senior sports writer for KyForward, where he primarily covers University of Kentucky sports. Reach him at keith.taylor@kyforward.com or @keithtaylor21 on Twitter

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