Would we want it any other way?
Arch rivals U of L and UK are set to battle for a trip to the CWS in Omaha.
First pitch. Friday. 12:00 Noon.
The University of Louisville Cardinal nine had to dig deep into its reserve of pluck and guile to capture a fifth straight regional crown.
Do not be mislead by 11-6 and 11-1 victories over Radford and Oklahoma in Games #1 and #2. Each was fraught with peril, victory far from a certain until late.
The come from behind, come from behind, come from behind finale, a back and forth 8-7 escape over Xavier to live for another weekend, is a far more accurate portrayal of the Cards fifth consecutive NCAA Regional sweep.
Ahead: The Cardinals’ hated arch rival.
Meanwhile down the road, Kentucky’s Wildcats survived rain delays, and captured three straight elimination games, including a comeback against NC State in the finale, to advance to their first ever Super Regional.
Ahead: The Wildcats hated arch rival.
Adding to the mystery and excitement, as if this scenario needs any seasoning at all, is this: The teams split their season series in a couple mid-week encounters. The 43-21 Cats prevailed 11-7 in Lexington; the 50-10 Cards by a 5-3 tally at the Jim, where the schools will battle this weekend.
Get ready when out driving in the next few days. An epidemic of car flags is about to erupt.
* * * * *
After falling in home Super Regionals the last two seasons — on walk off homers no less at the expense of the nation’s best reliever — U of L’s resolve has been tested all season, despite its spectacular record.
Does this edition of the Cardinals have the grit to make it to Nebraska, and surpassing its predecessors by fashioning an indelible imprint if there?
An indication that this could be, might be the season it comes about was on display Saturday night, in an encounter that for a good while was an old school pitcher’s duel between Oklahoma Sooner ace Jake Irvin and Cardinal star Brendan McKay.
The Sooners finally scratched out a run in the bottom of the 5th for a 1-0 lead.
But the Cardinals countered in the top of the 6th, scoring on a sac fly to knot it at 1-1.
The Cards National POY tired in the bottom of the 7th, walking .190 hitter Domenic DeRenzo for the second time, then hurling one out of the strike zone to next batter Kyle Mendenhall.
Time for a change. Enter Jake Sparger. In a classic confrontation — something often called a “big league at bat” — the Cardinal reliever finally struck out his adversary. But only after numerous throws to hold the runner at first, numerous foul balls and serious pivotal point in the game tension. Then Sparger induced a third out grounder to Brandon Zaragoza on a 3-2 pitch.
Like his bullpen mate Sam Bordner, who extruded a career high six Ks to shut down Radford the previous evening, Sparger too quashed the foe’s thoughts of victory.
Resolute after encountering that threat with McKay gone from the mound, U of L exploded in the top of the eighth, plating seven, blowing open the game, even after Devin Hairston was thrown out at the plate for the inning’s first out. The outburst essentially breoke the Sooners, who were so flummoxed, they gave up three more in the top of the ninth, and were skunked 11-0 by Xavier in the following afternoon’s elimination game.
The descriptor that comes to mind about Sunday’s Cardinal W over Xavier is . . . harrowing.
Louisville fell behind 2-0 in the top of the fourth. But pushed ahead with three scores in the bottom of the frame. The Musketeers knotted it on Ethan Schmidt’s monster HR, leading off the next half inning.
Xavier took the lead again 4-3, on a deftly executed squeeze play in its next at bat. U of L countered again with three runs in the bottom of the sixth for a 6-4 advantage. Which they relinquished in the of top of the next when Xavier scored three of their own for 7-6 lead. Dan McDonnell, frustrated by his bullpen, tabbed closer Lincoln Henzman earlier than usual to end that rally.
But, but, but The Cards surged right back. The regional’s best player Josh Stowers, who rose to the occasion time and again, tied the affair with an RBI double. Logan Taylor’s one out single drove in what proved to be the winning run.
Henzman blanked Xavier the rest of the way.
For the Regional securing triumph, Louisville overcame adversity, a fundamental base running gaffe which cost them a run, and an errant pick off attempt error which set up a fall behind run.
Timely hitting, especially by the bottom of the Cards order — 3,4 and 5 went 1/11 — and sheer perseverance prevailed.
The reward for that effort is war with surging Kentucky.
* * * * *
It’s not like the Wildcats have waltzed into the Super Regional. They too showed significant intestinal fortitude to advance.
After besting Ohio’s Bobcats in the Regional opener, they fell to N.C. State, falling into the loser’s bracket. They outscored the Hoosiers, then had to come back against the Wolfpack to force a deciding game, then do it again and use their ace in relief to survive.
So each of the combatants in the upcoming Bluegrass Battle has proven its mettle to make it this far. Each has a goal.
Kentucky is the up and comer in its initial Super Regional ever, intent on making it to the College World Series for the first time. A trip that would be especially sweet, given that it would signify triumph over its most fierce enemy.
Louisville’s the old hand, looking to prove that the walk off disappointments of the last season are but rear view images, that they are poised for a third CWS in five seasons. A trip that would be especially sweet, given it would come at the expense of its most fierce enemy.
The Commonwealth’s motto: United We Stand, Divided We Fall.
Everybody from the Pennyrile to Prestonsburg knows that’s laughable, especially when it comes to college sports.
Cats vs. Cards. UK vs. U of L.
Always intense. Ever more so with a trip to Omaha awaiting the victor.
— Seedy K