Too many Kentucky Wildcats turned in extraordinary efforts on Friday afternoon, evening and night to narrow them down. Too many players went beyond anything they had ever done in a heart-stopping 21-inning NCAA Tournament game against Kent State.
And they all came in a losing effort.
After six hours, 37 minutes and 678 combined pitches between the two teams, UK was on the wrong end of a 7-6 instant classic that had the College Baseball Hall of Fame asking for the Golden Flashes lineup card.
"I've never been a part of it myself personally," said catcher Michael Williams. "Definitely unique. You've got to grind, all of it. You just got to stick together as a team and it was definitely a good competitive effort by both teams we just came up short."
Following a game no one in attendance will ever forget, the Cats ware left ruing a bevy of missed opportunities, namely 23 runners left on base. UK forced extra innings with a run in the bottom of the ninth and again extended the game with a run in the 18th inning, but narrowly failed to score the winning run in increasingly maddening fashion as the night wore on.
In the 10th inning, little-used utility player Steven Hoagland - who raised his season at-bat total from three to eight in a substitute role - came to the plate with runners on first and third with one out. He laid down a safety squeeze bunt that bounced into the glove of pitcher Brian Clark and failed to score the run from third base.
In the 12th, Williams roped a would-be double off the left field wall, appearing to start another serious UK threat. It was not to be, as the senior was called out for not having touched first base on his way to second.
In the 14th, Paul McConkey - also on as a substitute - pulled two balls deep down the line in right field that looked to be potential walk off home runs. Instead, both were ruled foul, one after hitting the fence inches away from the line and the other after easily clearing the wall.
In both the 15th and 20th innings, UK loaded the bases only to be denied, the latter of which happened in particularly logic-defying fashion. With one out, J.T. Riddle stepped the plate needing just a fly ball to win the game. Instead, he bounced a 2-2 pitch back to the pitcher for a rare 1-2-3 double play that ended the frame.
Perhaps even more heartbreaking than that 20th inning was a play on which Williams at once got retribution for his double-that-wasn't and was left wondering what might have been. After A.J. Reed singled to move McConkey to third base with one out in the 18th, Williams came up with his team trailing by a run. He got a hold of yet another ball that likely would have been a home run if not for the win and the cavernous nature of the U.S. Steel Yard. Instead, it one-hopped the fence in center, McConkey scored and Reed got on his horse. He was waved home from third as the potential winning run, but with a good relay throw and cramps that kicked in at just the wrong time, he was gunned down.
"You start to do things when you're playing a game like this," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "You start to push things a little bit. You steal, you wave A.J. from first, you're going to safety even though they come in and you make gambles. That's all there is to it. You start gambling."
It's hard to blame Henderson for aggressiveness, and it's even harder to blame Reed for anything at all. After playing the first 12 innings at designated hitter, then first base, Reed was called on to pitch. All he did was turn in the equivalent of a complete game, allowing just two runs over nine innings while tallying eight of the 26 strikeouts registered by UK pitchers on this night.
"Getting a guy that's been the DH for 12 (innings) and you go and get him and he gets nine innings, that's a special guy," Henderson said of the freshman.
"I'm just hoping to go out there and throw up a zero and hope our team's going to score the next inning. I just had to keep going out there doing what I can to help the team," Reed said.
Helping steady Reed in his efforts was Williams, who was behind the plate for every out tallied by the Wildcats. Somewhat miraculously, Williams reported feeling no worse for the wear, but he doesn't expect things to stay that way.
"To be honest, I couldn't feel anything," Williams said. "I was trying to grind it out for the teammates and I was really (on) an emotional high so I couldn't feel anything...I'll probably feel it later. I don't feel it now. It just stinks that we didn't come out with the win."
The heroic performances didn't stop there either. Trevor Gott pitched four scoreless innings of dazzling relief, far surpassing his previous high. Hoagland fielded nearly flawlessly at second base, a position he had scarcely played before. Luke Maile ran and fielded on a tweaked hamstring for a handful of innings. Zac Zellers reached base seven times in nine plate appearances, smacking five hits in the process.
Henderson's feelings after such a gutsy effort were understandably mixed.
"There's a lot of positive things there," Henderson said. "Obviously a loss is a loss...You feel good about your kids."
There are no mixed feelings on the part of Henderson or his team about how the Wildcats will respond when they have to turn around and play in the loser's bracket Saturday afternoon against either Purdue or Valparaiso.
"It's definitely tough, but our team has handled adversity all year and we'll come out ready to fight tomorrow," Williams said. "We'll forget about this game and we'll be fine because we'll be emotionally high again."
UK's staff is depleted and Maile and Lucas Witt are not expected to play due to injuries sustained on Friday, but Henderson expects his bunch to be able to make due.
"It's going to be enough," Henderson said of the players he'll have available. "Unless we play 21 innings."