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Wildcats overcome weather delay, N.C. State to earn program’s first trip to NCAA Super Regionals

By Keith Taylor
KyForward Senior Sports Writer

Securing a first-ever trip to the Super Regionals took longer than expected, but the weather delay was well worth the wait for the Wildcats.

Kentucky, the top seed in the Lexington Regional, climbed its way out of the losers bracket and rallied to beat North Carolina State 10-5 for the second time in as many days to advance to the NCAA Super Regionals for the first time in school history in front of a Cliff Hagan Stadium record crowd of 5,005.

The Kentucky baseball team defeated N.C. State 10-5 early Tuesday morning to reach the NCAA Super Regionals for the first time in school history (Photo by Britney Howard/UK Athletics)

“They have just done something that has never been done in the history of the baseball program and we’ve been playing baseball over 100 years here,” Kentucky coach Nick Mingione said. “They’re going to be able to tell their kids, their families, their wives and hopefully the baseball thing works out and they will be able to play 10 years in the big leagues. But, if it doesn’t and they go into business – I promise this equips them. This goes way deeper than just baseball. This makes them believe that they can do things that have never been done before – and that’s really powerful.”

The Wolfpack (36-25) placed the hosts in the losers bracket with a 5-4 stunner over the Wildcats Saturday, but Kentucky bounced Sunday with wins over rival Indiana and N..C. State in a double-header Sunday to force a decisive elimination game in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, a game that was delayed by inclement weather.

Originally scheduled for a 7 p.m start time, the game was suspended for two hours and 20 minutes and didn’t get under way until 9:20 p.m. The contest came a close at 1:10 a.m., ending a gruesome four-game stretch for the Wildcats, who played North Carolina State three times in opening round of the tourney.

During the delay, Kentucky remained focused on the task at hand.

“We sent them back to the locker room and we told them that we didn’t want them to get on their phones,” Mingione said. “We wanted them to just enjoy the time in the locker room and enjoy the time spent together. When I came back out and I heard the announcement that they were going to open up the stadium and the people started flowing back in, I was like, I cannot believe all of these people are still here.”

Kentucky (43-21) will take on Louisville in this weekend’s Super Regional at Patterson Stadium in Louisville. The Cardinals defeated Xavier 8-7 Sunday night to advance to next round. Date and times for the best-of-three series will be announced Tuesday night. The Wildcats dealt the top-seeded Cardinals an 11-7 setback on April 18 at Cliff Hagan Stadium.

Not only did the Wildcats overcome the weather elements, but also fended off a pair of one-run deficits during the first five innings and took the lead for good on Kole Cottam’s double off the wall in right field. Cotta’s two-bagger gave the Wildcats a 7-5 advantage, a critical part of the team’s three-run outburst in the seventh frame.

“When we scored those three runs in the seventh, I thought that was huge,” Mingione said. “I thought that was a big moment in the game, and then obviously in the ninth when we got three more and we doubled them up at 10-5, I thought that would be difficult to recover. Especially the way Sean was throwing the ball.”

Out of options on the mound, Mingione shelved any thoughts of relying on a steady pitching rotation and depended on a makeshift pitching staff comprised of starter Zach Logue, reliever Logan Salow and ace Sean Hjelle in the regional finale. Logue threw the first three and one-thirds innings, scattering three hits, while giving up four runs. Logue collected four strikeouts during his time on the mound.

Salow went two and one -third innings and gave up a pair of hits and one run, before giving way to Hjelle with one out in the seventh inning. Hjelle didn’t allow a hit, while striking out five batters. Hjelle put the finishing touches on the win by striking out the side in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Following the last out, Hjelle was the center of attention and at the bottom of a proverbial dog pile at midfield.

“(I) got caught on the bottom of that and, you know, that’s a lot of weight coming down so I hadn’t necessarily practiced that exactly,” Hjelle said. “But I’ll never forget the image in my head of looking at the dugout and seeing all those guys just rush at me. And the feeling of being crushed right there was so worth it. Just having that image and that memory in my head was just so cool.”

Cottam paced Kentucky’s six-hit attack with a pair of hits and two RBIs. Marcus Carson contributed with two hits, including a double. Carson drove in three runs.

Will Wilson collected two hits, while Brett Kinneman connected on a two-run homer to pace the North Carolina State offense. The Wolfpack used five pitchers in their final game of the season.

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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