Once again, N.C. State finds itself in a winner-take-all regional final.
The Wolfpack fell 8-6 to Kentucky on Sunday at Cliff Hagan Stadium after a four-run sixth inning for the Wildcats became the pivotal frame. Though less drama surrounds N.C. State this year than last year’s Elliott Avent ejection and the Fort Worth Regional two seasons ago, the trend still holds water until the Wolfpack can advance to the Super Regional.
“It’s kind of something you really don’t want to think about right now, especially at this time,” junior Brock Deatherage said. “We’re playing our best baseball right now as a team. We’re going to be strong coming in tomorrow, so we have a lot of confidence and we’re just going to do everything that we can.”
Avent did not take too kindly about digging up the old bones of the Coastal Carolina loss, in which the Wolfpack was an out away from victory before blowing a lead to the eventual 2016 national champion, or the 2015 TCU game in which N.C. State led 8-1 in the eighth inning before allowing seven unearned runs and succumbing to defeat.
But once is once, twice is a pair and three times can become a trend.
“Today is today, and tomorrow is tomorrow,” shortstop Joe Dunand said. “It’s a new day (Monday), and we’re very confident going into tomorrow.”
Brian Brown went longer than his fellow N.C. State starting pitchers this weekend but struggled to miss bats in the middle innings. Brown allowed five runs on 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings with five strikeouts, but still left in the sixth inning with the Wolfpack trailing by a single run.
“(Kentucky) is a tough offense to pitch to as much as ours is tough to pitch to,” Avent said. “He pitched his tail off. It’s unfortunate the way the sixth inning unfolded.”
The Wildcats scored four runs with two out in the sixth inning in the pivotal frame of the game. Tristan Pompey doubled, and Brown was chased after allowing a walk. Zach Reks hit an RBI single against Tommy DeJuneas, who walked in a run before leaving the game. Tim Naughton hit some bad luck with an RBI single that dribbled to the third baseman, and a wild pitch provided a five-run margin after six innings.
Catcher Andy Cosgrove gave the Wolfpack a 2-0 lead in the second inning with a two-run double. But as N.C. State inched further along, Kentucky answered.
The Wildcats singled three times to manufacture a run and tied the score in the third inning with a Kole Cottam sacrifice fly. Brock Deatherage regained the lead for N.C. State with an RBI triple, but Kentucky outfielder Marcus Carson drew the Wildcats even with a solo home run to right field.
Riley Mahan settled for an RBI single in the fifth inning off of the old scoreboard in right field to give Kentucky its first lead of the night.
Joe Dunand pushed the Wolfpack to 8-6 with a three-run home run in the seventh inning. But N.C. State did little else against Kentucky closer Logan Salow, who came into the game with a 1.72 earned run average and 10 saves. Salow retired all eight batters he faced for the save.
Kentucky and N.C. State will play at 7:04 on Monday at Cliff Hagan Stadium. The Wildcats have never advanced to the Super Regionals in the current tournament format.