Sean Adler reminded N.C. State coach Elliott Avent after Friday’s win over Indiana that he was still ready to start in Saturday’s game as planned.
But Avent did not feel comfortable pushing his senior left-hander out in front of a Cliff Hagan Stadium-record crowd after ending the previous day with Adler recording the final out against the Hoosiers. After spending hours in the early morning Saturday and up to three hours before first pitch contemplating, Avent went another direction.
Freshman Michael Bienlien started, earned one out in the first inning and frantically loaded the bases before Avent walked slowly to the mound and inserted Adler.
The move proved correct, as Adler provided 7 2/3 innings as a pseudo-starting pitcher and lifted N.C. State to a 5-4 victory over Kentucky as the Wolfpack advanced to the final of the Lexington Regional.
Adler set season highs in pitches thrown (122) while shutting down a potent Wildcats lineup with what Kentucky coach Nick Mingione called “70 percent off-speed stuff.”
“That’s a really good hitting team, so you have to be careful with where you miss,” Adler said. “You have to miss in the right spots and keep them off balance.”
N.C. State’s two starting pitchers in the Lexington Regional have thrown 36 total pitches, which has taxed the Wolfpack bullpen. The saving grace, of course, is that N.C. State faces the prospect of one Sunday game, not two, with a fresher bullpen due to Adler’s outing.
“They’ve done it all year,” Avent said of his bullpen. “I thought (Adler) may have given us 90 pitches today, and he gave us 122. Our catcher didn’t want to take him out.”
N.C. State’s offense went to work down 1-0, taking the lead in the bottom of the first inning on a pair of leadoff home runs by Stephen Pitarra and Josh McLain. The Wolfpack broke a 2-2 tie in the fifth inning on a two-out, two-run triple by Evan Mendoza that Kentucky center-fielder Marcus Carson misplayed before allowing the ball to roll to the center-field wall.
N.C. State’s lineup forced Kentucky starter Justin Lewis out of his comfort zone early in the game, which partially contributed to five Wolfpack walks in five innings.
“I thought we got some good hit balls off of (Lewis), but he came back (after a two-run first inning) and gave them some good innings,” Avent said.
Adler wiggled out of a jam in the seventh inning, stranding two Kentucky runners with a fly ball out of pinch-hitter Luke Heyer. Kentucky was 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position against Adler, who earned the save in Friday’s win over Indiana. Kentucky’s Evan White homered with one out in the ninth inning off of N.C. State’s Austin Staley, who retired the final two batters for the save.
The Wolfpack wake up on Sunday not to play baseball but to watch Kentucky and Indiana play for the right to advance to the regional final. The winner of that game faces N.C. State at 7:04 p.m Sunday in Lexington and will have to defeat the Wolfpack twice in order to advance to the Super Regionals.