LOUISVILLE—Rivalry games usually deliver good theater. They don't always provide good baseball, as heightened emotions can also lead to extra anxiety and more mistakes. That was the case in a sloppy elimination game between Rice and Texas A&M on Sunday in regionals.
The Louisville Regional championship game between the host Cardinals and in-state rival Kentucky wasn't exactly a work of art, but it was surprisingly well played considering the two teams had to wait out a four-hour rain delay and play through a steady rain for much of the night. And the first-ever NCAA tournament game between the two Bluegrass State rivals gave a rowdy, soggy crowd all the intensity, passion and theater it could have wanted.
Two home-plate collisions led to two benches-clearing incidents, ramping up emotions in a game that was destined to be emotional. But Louisville has superb leadership from its fine coaching staff and its core of Omaha-tested upperclassmen, and the Cardinals never let their focus waver on Sunday night. Louisville has proven it knows how to win in the postseason; Kentucky is still trying to get over the hump past the regional round for the first time in program history.
The Cardinals reinforced their status as the dominant power in the Bluegrass State with a 4-1 win against UK, propelling Louisville to its second straight super regional, and its fourth since Dan McDonnell took over as head coach in 2007. It wasn't just another postseason win—beating Kentucky undoubtedly enhanced the atmosphere and surely gave the Cardinals a little extra satisfaction. But at the same time, this group of Cardinals has its eye on the bigger prize.
"We know how good that team was, what an offense they had," McDonnell said. "Obviously they beat us twice during the year. It's a fun rivalry, for our kids, for our fans. Let's be honest: This is what you all wanted, what our fans wanted. Didn't know if it would happen or not, but it happened in the finals, and it made for exciting baseball. Maybe not the cleanest game, but both teams fought real hard, intense, and put it on the line.
"That was an intense, emotional game. So as much as I try to calm our kids down, believe me, we get it. I know what a big deal the rivalry is. But our goals are different from the rivalry. Our goal is to get to Omaha and win a championship."
Five key seniors kept Louisville's exciting young core grounded, even after the two home-plate collisions in the seventh inning. Louisville's Alex Chittenden found himself caught in a rundown between third and home in the top of the seventh, and the play ended with Chittenden plowing head-first into the legs of Kentucky first baseman Thomas Bernal, who was covering the plate. Tempers flared, but no one was ejected.
Louisville scored three runs in the frame to take a 4-0 lead, but Kentucky responded by mounting one of its biggest threats in the bottom of the inning. With one run already on the board and Bernal on third, pinch-hitter Kyle Barrett hit a line drive to center field that looked like it would drop to keep Kentucky's rally going. But Louisville senior Cole Sturgeon, a premium defensive center fielder, got a good jump and made a sliding catch. Bernal tagged from third, and Sturgeon's throw home was up the line, resulting in hard contact. Bernal looked like Rodney Harrison taking out a wide receiver over the middle, bowling into catcher Kyle Gibson above the waist and knocking him over. Bernal was immediately tossed, and Gibson spiked the ball into the ground when he got up, but umpires and coaches did a good job preventing the situation from escalating further.
And Louisville's unflappable veterans made sure the Cardinals kept their composure in the final two innings.
"The older guys, we've been in some big games throughout our careers, a lot of high emotion, a lot of ups and downs," said Sturgeon, the Most Outstanding Player of the regional. "I think we've learned how to handle it as a group. It's tough. Its an emotional atmosphere, a lot of fun. You've got to roll with the punches, stay even keeled. I was telling (freshman lefthander) Josh (Rogers) the whole game, 'You've just got to keep going, not too high, not too low."
Rogers had started both midweek games against Kentucky this year, losing them both. But Sunday, he rose to the occasion when it mattered most, working six innings of four-hit, one-run ball to earn the win. He issued no walks and struck out five, commanding his 86-89 fastball, 78-79 slider and occasional changeup to both sides. On a team loaded with seasoned veterans, the freshman acted like one of them; when McDonnell went to the mound with two on and two out in the fifth, Rogers told him, "This is my hitter," so the coach left him in the game. And he escaped the inning with a groundout, rewarding McDonnell's faith.
Maybe Rogers wasn't around for last year's Omaha run—he was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery as a high school senior. But he and fellow freshmen Corey Ray and Nik Solak have already become part of Louisville's winning culture.
"(The seniors) set the expectations just as high as the coaches," Rogers said. "They tried to make it where we know where we're at, and we expect to be here."