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College World Series bound: How ‘gritty’ winning run sums up Kentucky baseball’s identity

Maybe Kentucky baseball actually is a team of destiny.

Nolan McCarthy’s play in the super regional-clinching win over Oregon State certainly suggests it might be.

Twice in the 3-2 victory McCarthy doubled on a line drive down the left field line that took a fortuitous bounce off the corner of the wall and caromed into shallow left field, forcing the outfielder to run farther to the ball. The first double gave Kentucky a 1-0 lead in the second inning. The second set up what, for now, looks like the most important play in program history.

McCarthy was unable to move to third base on failed sac bunt attempt, but when Oregon State pitcher Nelson Keljo’s strikeout pitch to UK shortstop Grant Smith skipped to the backstop McCarthy was unwilling to settle for one extra base.

Even with coach Nick Mingione directing him to stop from the third base coaching box, McCarthy knew he had an opportunity for more when he saw Keljo had not covered home plate. McCarthy kept running, leaped for a Pete Rose-esque slide to score what would end up being the winning run.

Kentucky’s Nolan McCarthy celebrates after scoring what proved to be the winning run against Oregon State on Sunday night at Kentucky Proud Park.
Kentucky’s Nolan McCarthy celebrates after scoring what proved to be the winning run against Oregon State on Sunday night at Kentucky Proud Park.

Yes, Kentucky baseball advanced to its first College World series by scoring from second base on a strikeout.

“We were, like, ‘Oh, my gosh Nolan’s doing it,’” reliever Robert Hogan said, recounting how he watched the play from the bullpen. “The pitcher is not covering. Go! All of a sudden I see him dive. I was, like, oh, my gosh, he just did the Pete Rose dive. That was awesome. I remember that.

“It just shows how gritty we are and how we’re willing to do everything it takes to win.”

Kentucky was not supposed to be here.

The SEC coaches picked the Wildcats to finish fifth in the East division in their preseason poll. None of the major preseason polls included Kentucky in their top 25s.

Answering that skepticism, Kentucky piled up a program-record 22 SEC wins. It earned the highest NCAA Tournament seed in program history, hosted a super regional for the first time and then won its first super regional game Saturday with a 10-0 one-hit shutout.

Even after mowing through its NCAA Tournament regional without having to use two of the bullpen’s top relievers, Kentucky faced doubts about how its pitching would matchup with Oregon State’s vaunted offense. Both the Baseball America and D1Baseball super regional preview podcasts featured predictions that Oregon State would not only win in Lexington but would also advance to the College World Series championship final.

Instead, Kentucky held Oregon State and star Travis Bazzana, possibly the No. 1 pick in next month’s MLB draft, to just three total hits in two games. Throughout the clinching game, Kentucky pitchers worked in and out of trouble, capping the performance with a three-pitch strikeout from saves leader Johnny Hummel with men on first and third base and two outs in the ninth inning.

“Just seeing the way it’s built the last couple of years, it feels like we’ve really kicked the door down now,” McCarthy said. “We have unfinished business. It feels amazing to be the first ones.”

Kentucky’s Nolan McCarthy slides in safe at home to score from second base on a wild pitch during the seventh inning against Oregon State.
Kentucky’s Nolan McCarthy slides in safe at home to score from second base on a wild pitch during the seventh inning against Oregon State.

Kentucky’s reputation for a small-ball offense has downplayed the Wildcats’ ability to score with power too, as evidenced by the 21 home runs from first baseman Ryan Nicholson and breakout season from first-round draft prospect Ryan Waldschmidt, but Mingione’s aggressive coaching style remains on full display.

For that reason, McCarthy’s game-winning run — on which he tweaked his hamstring — might be the perfect encapsulation of what makes these Wildcats go.

“Nolan is the guy that wants to make the special play,” Mingione said. “… I’m glad he went. He did the Superman dive. He was going to do something that it was going to be, like, it was a Nolan McCarthy moment.”

Two record crowds packed Kentucky Proud Park for the super-regional games, helping will Kentucky to its first College World Series.

There should be plenty of UK blue in Omaha, but traditional SEC powers are still likely to bring more fans to Charles Schwab Field. Even without raucous crowds on its side, Kentucky will be difficult to pick against now, though.

Kentucky players celebrate reaching the College World Series after their defeat of Oregon State on Sunday night at Kentucky Proud Park.
Kentucky players celebrate reaching the College World Series after their defeat of Oregon State on Sunday night at Kentucky Proud Park.

Mingione spent much of his post-super regional news conference proselytizing his Christian faith, crediting God for helping make the changes in his program that have spurred the recent success. Whether a higher power has affected Kentucky’s postseason run or not, these Wildcats have made it clear there is something special about this team.

Thanks in large part to McCarthy’s daring now there is an opportunity for even more.

“The strength of our team is our team,” Mingione said. “I reminded them of that every game. Tell them the second thing, victory must be earned when? Every day. This is a new day. We have to earn it today. This is how life works. You’ve got to get up and go to work every day. It doesn’t stop.

“And the way we’re going to do it is go on the attack. … That was just a beautiful way for us to go to Omaha: a guy attacking.”

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