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June 2, 2014
Sparks fly when rivals collide in Regional
The lead-up to last weekend's NCAA Baseball Regional at Jim Patterson Stadium was all about the possibility of a showdown between top-seeded Louisville (48-15) and second-seeded Kentucky (37-25).
Both coaches downplayed the rivalry at stake and the players said they were focused on their first foes, but it was all fans and media wanted to talk about.
Then UK coach Gary Henderson tipped his hand a bit when he saved ace A.J. Reed for the second game of the Regional, thinking his Wildcats would need Reed's arm against Louisville's bevy of lefties.
But after all that run-up, UK lost to Kansas Friday night and it looked like the highly anticipated matchup may not happen.
With Louisville beating Kent State and Kansas on Friday and Saturday, Kentucky clawed its way through the Loser's Bracket and the matchup that Louisville coach Dan McDonnell joked about being inevitable finally happened Sunday night (after a four-hour lightning delay, of course).
It didn't disappoint.
Thanks to a rain-soaked crowd that spent most of the weather delay in local restaurants and watering holes, the atmosphere in the stadium was electric.
Several missed scoring opportunities from both teams early in the game made the tension in the stadium one level higher.
Louisville scored one run in the third inning after Shane Crain reached on a walk and UK freshman starter Logan Salow gave up a double to Sutton Whiting and hit Cole Sturgeon to load the bases. A single by freshman Nick Solak scored Crain from third, but Louisville couldn't get any more runs and the score remained 1-0 until the seventh inning.
UK brought in Sam Mahar to pitch the seventh inning and promptly walked Whiting. Sturgeon bunted for a single to put runners on first and second with no outs. Solak bunted back to the pitcher, and Mahar sailed a throw over Kentucky first baseman Bernal's head. Seeing that, Whiting sprinted home from third to push Louisville's lead to 2-0.
After a strikeout by Gardner, Chittenden hit a blooper over the second baseman's head to score Sturgeon from third and leave runners at the corners. A double by Corey Ray scored Solak from third to put Louisville up 4-0.
Then, a pair of collisions at home plate took the intensity an extra notch higher.
The Cardinals were trying to add to their lead when Chittenden got caught in a rundown between third base and home and ended up diving toward home plate directly into the knee of UK first baseman Thomas Bernal, who was blocking the base path about five feet from home plate.
Kentucky's dugout emptied then Louisville's dugout emptied as both coaching staffs scrambled to keep their team away from the other.
In college baseball, a runner is prohibited from hitting a defender above the waist in a malicious attempt to dislodge the ball. Knowing this, Chittenden dove, but UK's players clearly thought he had ill-intent on the play.
With Kentucky trailing 4-0 in the bottom of the seventh, Kentucky struck back. The Wildcats scored a run with one out and runners on the corners before a dramatic play at home plate ended the inning.
Centerfielder Cole Sturgeon caught a fly ball in shallow center field and rifled a throw to the third base line to catcher Kyle Gibson who was blocking UK's Bernal as Bernal tried to score. Instead of dving or sliding, Bernal ran Gibson over.
After flipping backwards and popping back onto his feet, Gibson showed Bernal and the UK bench the ball still in his hands and then spiked it near home plate after the third out was called.
Again both benches emptied and again both coaching staffs scrambled to keep their team from getting close enough to throw punches.
Bernal was thrown out in violation of the Collision Rule and UK's team was apoplectic.
Ahead 4-1, Louisville was able to close out the win with Kyle McGrath throwing in the eighth and Nick Burdi closing out the ninth inning.
"A lot of the older guys, we've been in some big games throughout our careers," Sturgeon said of Louisville's poise under pressure. "[We have had] a lot of high emotions. a lot of ups and downs, and I think we've learned how to handle it as a group. It's tough. It's an emotional atmosphere. It's a lot of fun. You've got to roll with the punches, the ups and downs and just try to stay even-keeled and just keep going, stay right where you're at, not too high and not too low. For the most part, we did a pretty good job of it. Obviously things kind of flared up a little bit every now and then but it's a big-time game for both teams."
Kentucky got a runner on in each of the eighth and ninth innings, but neither got past second base. Pinch-hitter Dorian Hairston grounded out to Whiting to end the game, sparking a joyous celebration by Lousiville's team as they gathered around Burdi and Gibson.
The Cardinals are 41-0 this season when leading after the eighth inning and have won 96 straight games when entering the ninth with a lead.
Louisville freshman righty Josh Rogers, who lost to Kentucky twice during the regular season in midweek starts, got the win by scattering just four hits and striking out five in six innings of scoreless work.
"You know, obviously they beat us twice during the year. It's a fun rivalry, you know, for our kids, for our fans," McDonnell said. "Let's be honest, this is what you all wanted. This is what our fans wanted. Didn't know if it would happen or not, but it happened in the finals and made for exciting baseball. Maybe not the cleanest game but obviously both teams fought real hard, real intense, and both teams put it on the line. So, it was a fun game to be a part of and I'm proud of my guys for how hard they fought so we get a chance to advance and move on."
Henderson said, "Credit to Dan and his club. Coming in here, I knew our best route was to win three in a row, and that's just how it is and they got that done, we weren't able to do that. We fought well, but they won three in a row. They get to keep playing."
Louisville never trailed through 27 innings of the Regional. The Cardinals beat Kent State 5-0 Friday, and 10-4 in the Kentucky game.