Coach Mingione has mentioned all season how badly he wanted to win a regional for this team. With a 10-5 win over NC State on Monday night, Mingione helped deliver that accolade to his team.
“I couldn’t control myself. I was crying because I’ve been around these guys for 11 months now. I know how hard they have worked.” Mingione said. “If you were to ask me hey, what’s your favorite thing as a coach as far as on the field goes? It is to watch my players celebrate a championship.”
UK needed to win three games in two days with limited resources on the mound, but Mingione and his staff still found a way to bring the first Regional Championship trophy to Lexington.
The Cats battled back from two deficits in a front of a Cliff Hagan Stadium-record 5,005 fans. The first comeback came after the Pack took a 2-0 lead in the second. Kentucky then rallied with four runs in the fourth to claim a 4-2 lead. The big inning came thanks to some tough at-bats from everyone that came to the plate for UK. Luke Becker walked to lead off the inning. Kole Cottam followed with a one-out single and Tyler Marshall loaded the bases with a walk. During Marshall’s at-bat, things got interesting with the third base umpire and NC State. After two close checked swings, NC State had two players start jawing at the ump and nearly get tossed. While they argued, all 5,005 fans made noise. It was clear the game wasn’t going to be the same from that point on.
Just as they did in the previous two games, UK capitalized in a big situation. Marcus Carson doubled down the right field line to tie the game at two. Connor Heady drove in a run with a groundout to give UK their first lead of the day. Johnny Piedmonte battled, but UK’s offense was too much for him. Elliott Avent went to the pen with two outs in the fourth.
Johnny Piedmonte battled, but UK’s offense was too much for him. Elliott Avent went to the pen with two outs in the fourth. After the change, Evan White bounced in an infield single that would lead to UK’s fourth run scoring on a throwing error. After nearly 30 minutes, the top of the fourth ended with UK taking a 4-2 lead.
Cliff Hagan Stadium was going berserk after the rally, but NC State stayed calm under pressure. Will Wilson doubled home a run and came around on an Evan Mendoza sacrifice fly to tie the game at four. With one out in the fourth, Logan Salow took over for Zach Logue and recorded the last two outs without a hitch.
State continued to find success at the plate in the fifth. After Salow struck out the first two batters of the inning, Stephen Pitarra walked to give the Pack a chance with two outs. Josh McLain laced a liner to center that Carson could not handle as Pitarra scored all the way from first to give NC State a 5-4 lead.
Cody Beckman gave a career performance tonight for the Pack. He retired UK in order in the sixth, but could not halt UK’s offense in his third inning in relief. Trailing by one, the Kentucky offense went to work. Tristan Pompey and White both walked with no outs to give UK a great opportunity early in the inning. Luke Becker followed with a grounder to short that Joe Dunand threw away. Pompey jogged home from second to score the tying run.
Pompey’s run was only the beginning for the Cats in the 7th. Kole Cottam gave UK a 7-5 lead with a RBI double off the right field wall. The hit gave Cottam 17 in his last 34 at-bats.
“Coach Fanning, from the first pitch, was like, we’re going into your two-strike approach right away to shorten up my swing,” Cottam said. “I saw it up, and I hit and was watching the right fielder and was once he stopped running, I was like let’s go, let’s turn the burners on.”
After throwing 108 pitches on Friday, Sean Hjelle was called upon in the sixth inning in place of Logan Salow. The sophomore pitcher was lights out for the final 3.1 innings on Monday. Hjelle did not allow a hit while striking out five in a dominant relief performance. The former closer pitched his heart out this weekend and helped lead his team to victory in the championship game.
The Kentucky offense made sure that Hjelle had enough run support in the ninth. The BatCats dug in and found three runs in the top of the ninth thanks to Marshall, Carson, and Heady all producing quality at-bats and driving in runs.
Hjelle provided a show in the bottom half of the ninth. With the Cliff all anticipating the monumental accomplishment, Hjelle performed exceptionally well in the most important of circumstances. Hjelle struck out the side to clinch a regional championship for the Cats.
10-5. Cats win. pic.twitter.com/SEqVLsUBqA
— Trey Huntsman (@TreyHuntsmanKSR) June 6, 2017
Opening statement from Mingione pic.twitter.com/oDBgLVBZAt
— Trey Huntsman (@TreyHuntsmanKSR) June 6, 2017
All season, I have set aside three or four things I took away from a certain game. Maybe someone was throwing a slider well or someone was taking more pitches, whatever it was, I would put it here. But today, there is so much more to be said than a few random thoughts. What Nick Mingione and his staff have done in one year is absolutely remarkable. The BatCats are headed to their first Super Regional in school history, and it took Mingione only one year. This team has battled through adversity all season, and they were battle ready last night. With the biggest crowd ever at the Cliff, the Cats provided a surreal moment for those in attendance.
UK is now two wins over Louisville away from playing in the College World Series. Let that sink in for a moment. Mingione has worked extremely hard this for this team and this program to get them to this point. It was an incredible night at the Cliff as Kentucky is Regional Champs for the first time in school history.