LOUISVILLE—For eight innings, Nick Jensen-Clagg was better than college baseball’s best player.
A sophomore righthander who entered the game with a 4.76 ERA, Jensen-Clagg held Kentucky’s explosive offense scoreless on three hits for eight innings Saturday. Kent State jumped on A.J. Reed for two runs in the first, and Jensen-Clagg retired Reed in each of his first three plate appearances.
Jensen-Clagg’s 86-88 fastball is hardly overpowering, but his changeup gave Kentucky’s lefthanded hitters (including Reed) fits, inducing repeated weak contact. So Kent State left Jensen-Clagg in to face the top of Kentucky’s order in the ninth, and that’s when Reed finally got him.
After a one-out single by Max Kuhn, Reed ripped an RBI double to right-center, sparking a four-run outburst that propelled Kentucky to a thrilling 4-2 win. After doubling, Reed jogged off the field for a pinch-runner, and assumed his day was over.
“Coach was getting a drink, and I walked by, and I went back to the locker room to put my tennis shoes on,” Reed said. “He came back and said, ‘You’re still pitching.’ I said, ‘All right.’ I did not know that. When he pinch-ran for me, I thought I was done.”
Instead, Reed remained in the game as the pitcher (as college baseball rules allow), and closed out an efficient complete-game victory with a scoreless ninth. He finished with just 107 pitches and never reached a single three-ball count in the game.
After Kent State’s first four batters reached in the first inning—capped by Zarley Zalewski’s two-run single up the middle—Reed was in complete control for the rest of the game. He stranded runners at second and third to minimize the damage in the first and thwart Kent State’s momentum, starting a stretch where he retired 14 straight batters and 18 of 19. Reed hit his spots with his 90-91 fastball and effectively mixed in his 76-78 slurve against lefties and his low-80s changeup against righties.
“He started locating his pitches a lot better as the game went on,” Zalewski said. “He started mixing in, out, breaking ball, up, down. He started getting comfortable in the game.”
But Jensen-Clagg kept Kentucky’s hitters uncomfortable all the way until the top of the ninth, and when Reed came to the plate with a man on first and one out, it seemed fairly likely that it would be the final at-bat of his brilliant college career.
“You could definitely sense that we were down a little bit,” Reed said. “This guy was messing us up with his changeup and curveball, and he would sneak a fastball in here and there. So we were definitely getting down a little bit. But you’ve got to stay positive.
“It was kind of a surreal feeling when I walked up and Max was on first base with one out, and everybody got a little bit louder. I’m sure what was running through everybody’s mind was a home run, but I was just trying to extend the inning for us.”
That’s just what he did, belting a Jensen-Clagg changeup into the right-center gap, igniting the heavily pro-Kentucky crowd. After reliever John Fasola struck out cleanup man Ka’ai Tom then issued back-to-back walks to load the bases, Thomas Bernal lofted a little flare into no-man’s land down the left-field line, scoring two runs to put Kentucky ahead. The play was very reminiscent of Jimmy Rider’s game-winning bloop hit in the 2012 Eugene Super Regional, sending Kent State to Omaha. Bernal, a senior clubhouse leader, cracked wise when asked about his game-winner.
“You’re talking about my laser to left, right?” he quipped. “When I looked, the left fielder was playing by the track, so I got lucky a little bit, and glad it fell.”
Reed later deadpanned, “He barreled it pretty well. At first I thought it was going to get out, then I noticed the wind was blowing a little bit. Luckily for us they’re playing no doubles, so a hit like that gets the ball in. Thomas is an older guy, he’s been through it a couple times. Just a big time hit.”
And much to Reed’s surprise, the rules permitted him to return to the mound in the bottom of the ninth to slam the door, finishing off a sterling complete game.
“He didn’t walk anybody, big-time poise,” Henderson said. “It’s cliche, but big-time players step up when you need them. We needed A.J. today, and he gave it to us.”
Cardinals Firing On All Cylinders
Top-seeded Louisville put itself in the regional driver’s seat Saturday with a 6-3 win against third-seeded Kansas, setting up a rematch between the Jayhawks and Wildcats in Sunday’s elimination game. For the second straight day, Louisville looked very sharp in all facets and built a commanding lead early, then made big pitches in tight spots whenever its opponent threatened.
“That was a pretty complete game on our part,” Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said.
“You get quality starts, you take the lead on teams. Three of your bullpen guys get to run out there (in the first two games), you play good defense. I’m really pleased with where we’re at right now. If you try to script the regional, this is how you hope it’s going to go.”
The Cardinals scored single runs in the second and third innings against Kansas starter Frank Duncan, then tacked on three more in the fourth to go up 5-0. That proved enough support for Anthony Kidston and the Louisville bullpen, but the Jayhawks made them earn it.
A day after Kyle Funkhouser dominated Kent State for eight innings, Kidston—whose sterling changeup was very good, making up for a curveball that wasn’t as sharp as usual—battled his way through seven strong innings for the Cardinals, allowing two runs on five hits and five walks while striking out six. Kansas mounted threats in the fifth and sixth, loading the bases in both cases but coming away with just two runs. With the bases full and no outs in the sixth, Louisville demonstrated major faith in Kidston by leaving him in the game. Pitching coach Roger Williams made a mound visit, and Kidston responded to it by getting Kai’iana Eldredge to ground into a 6-4-3 double play. Then he got a flyout to end the inning.
“He said, ‘If you throw a good curveball here, we’re going to get this guy to hit into a double play,’” Kidston said of Williams’ mound visit. “That’s exactly what he said to me. Thankfully I was able to execute and that’s what happened.”
It was a perfect illustration of the well-oiled machine that is Louisville baseball. McDonnell and assistants Williams and Chris Lemonis—the reigning co-Assistant Coaches of the Year—have been together since 2007, and they know exactly how to prepare their players to succeed. McDonnell’s passion is coaching baserunning, and it’s no coincidence that Louisville is annually one of the nation’s best baserunning teams. The Cardinals kept pressure on Kansas with their speed and baserunning savvy Saturday, forcing defensive miscues on multiple occasions, stretching singles into doubles, and stealing a couple of bases.
“I compliment their team speed; their team speed is absolutely phenomenal,” Kansas coach Ritch Price said. “Reminds me of playing Texas A&M on their last College World Series team, loaded with speed . . . They do a really good job of running great 90s. Then they turned two singles into doubles—legged them out. It’s one thing to have good team speed. It’s another to know how to use it, and they know how to use their team speed.”
“We spend a lot of time practicing our baserunning,” McDonnell said. “I have a saying, ‘If you emphasize it, you’ll be good at it.’ We emphasize running the bases, we work extremely hard at it; I’m very critical of them, and they know, I have a book of game notes I share with them over the year, and probably 50 percent have to do with baserunning.”
Louisville’s speed also plays on the defensive end, and Price said he thought the Cardinals made four “plus” defensive plays Saturday, which was a major difference in the game.
Yet despite Louisville’s high level of play, Kansas had an opportunity to tie the game in the ninth. Leading 6-2, Cole Sturgeon hit back-to-back batters to load the bases, prompting Louisville to bring in closer Nick Burdi. With his adrenaline pumping, Burdi’s command of his 95-99 mph fastball was scattershot, and he walked in a run to make it 6-3. Then he got Tucker Tharp to pop up another fastball to left field, ending the game. It was the third time in the game that Kansas had a golden bases-loaded opportunity and failed to make the most of it, causing Price to criticize his team’s offensive approach.
“I didn’t think it was very good,” he said. “That’s the one thing I addressed with our guys afterward. In the first five innings, (Kidston) only threw three offspeed pitches for strikes. The strikeouts all came on guys chasing balls out of the zone. I thought as the game went on, we did a better job trying to eliminate his offspeed pitches and sit on the fastball until he could prove he could throw it for strikes. He made some good pitches, when he had to he made some good pitches.”
That’s nothing new for a Louisville program that knows how to win in the postseason.