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If it looked and felt like a familiar game, you weren't alone. The two teams have met now three times in the last two years in a regional with the three games being decided by a grand total of four runs. UK had been on the losing end of the first two meetings that came with its fair share of drama. Kent State outlasted UK in the opening game of the 2012 Gary Regional in 21 innings and then sent UK home for good in the regional championship game on a controversial home run in the eighth inning.
This time would be different, even if it didn't look like it for the first two hours of the game.
"It was nice to beat them," said junior starting pitcher and National Player of the Year A.J. Reed. "They gave us a little trouble in 2012, so it was good to come out here and get that win and have that ninth inning."
UK's offense was stagnant all afternoon, mustering just three hits until the ninth inning, but when the game was on the line the Wildcats staved off elimination for at least one more day. As the team has done all year long, Kentucky battled till the very end and the Wildcats showed their mettle with their backs against the wall.
After failing to get anything going offensively through the first eight innings, UK would not go down without a fight.
"I'm really proud of our guys," said UK head coach Gary Henderson. "I felt like we would come around like I always do. Sometimes it doesn't happen, but with this group most of the time it has, especially offensively. I think a very unbiased opinion would be A.J. was outstanding. It's cliche but big-time players step up when you need them and we need A.J. today and he gave it to us."
Following a one-out single from Max Kuhn to start the ninth inning, Reed drove him in from second, after a balk, with a double to the right-center gap for the first run of the game. The clutch hit from Reed was just what the Wildcats needed from their star player.
Not only was the hit big for the team, but for Reed as well. Entering today's game, Reed was in the midst of a minor slump that saw him going six games without an RBI and tally just three hits in his last 18 at-bats.
"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," Reed said. "I'm sure running through everybody's mind was a home run, but I was just trying to get on base and extend the inning for us."
With two outs and the bases loaded, Thomas Bernal stepped into the box and delivered a soft liner down the left field line for the go-ahead two-run double. Matt Reida, the very next batter, would then give UK one more insurance run on a sharp grounder through the left side to score Storm Wilson, while Bernal was thrown out at the plate trying to score as well.
On the mound, Reed threw his first-career complete game in giving up only two runs and striking out three, while only throwing 107 pitches. In fact, Reed never got to a single three-ball count against any Kent State batter. After allowing two runs on four hits to the first four batters in the first inning, he would retire 14 straight batters, while giving up no more runs and only three hits the rest of the way.
The win now gives UK some much needed confidence entering another elimination game on Sunday.
"It definitely gives us a lot of momentum," Reed said. "Right now we just have to be able to ride the high that we're on and take that momentum into the next game whoever we're playing. Whoever we're pitching is going to throw well. I think they'll be able to feed off how I pitched today and we're going to be pretty confident at the plate after that inning. I think it's going to give us a lot of momentum."
Coming into today's contest, Kentucky was 0-21 when trailing after eight innings this season. Big wins that come late in ball games can have a carry-over effect. That's exactly what UK is banking on for the remainder of this regional.
"I think any time you win a game late, kids feel good," Henderson said. "Everybody feels good. Your fans feel good, the coaches and the players. Winning late or losing late has a greater impact. I think it does in all sports. We'll feel good tonight. We'll feel good going to the ballpark tomorrow morning and if we score early, then you start riding that thing out."
Kentucky will face another stiff challenge on Sunday against the loser of Louisville and Kansas for the right to go to the championship series of the regional and would have to beat the winner of Louisville or Kansas twice in that championship series. In UK's seven previous regional appearances, the Wildcats have bounced back to make the regional championship in five of those.
So, knowing UK's history in past regionals, don't count out the Wildcats just yet.
In a game that saw more than three hours' worth of weather delays, UK could never find a rhythm in Friday's matchup with the Jayhawks. Starting pitcher Kyle Cody lasted just one-third of an inning after allowing three runs in the first and then sitting through an hour weather delay.
UK head coach Gary Henderson was quick to dismiss the notion that the weather was the cause for his team's poor play vs. KU.
"Kansas had to go through the same thing," Henderson said. "They played much better than we did today. It's not ideal to have three delays, but it didn't affect our pitching in the first two innings. I wouldn't attribute anything that happened today to delays, lightning, rain, stops, none of it. We just didn't play well enough."
The 2014 NCAA Tournament marks Kentucky's eighth trip in program history to the tournament and Kentucky is now 1-7 all-time in the opening game of a regional. However, the Wildcats have shown resilience in bouncing back to make the final game of the regional in five of those appearances, but have not advanced to a Super Regional.
The situation facing Kentucky is familiar and not ideal, but one that can be conquered.
"It's hard," Henderson said. "The bottom line is it's hard. It's not impossible. It'll probably happen this year with somebody. There's 16 of these (regionals) going on right now, so somebody will probably go through the loser's bracket and win. It might as well be us."
The Wildcats' National Player of the Year A.J. Reed doesn't necessarily view his team as having a huge hill to climb.
"I don't think it's really a hole," Reed said. "We're a good team. We can go win four games in a row; we've done it before this season. It all starts with tomorrow, so we have to come out here and play well tomorrow and get a good feel back and get some momentum back. I think after that we'll get on a little roll."
The junior lefthander will get the start in game two Saturday vs. Kent State in the elimination game. The last time UK and Kent State took the field, the game went 21 innings, while drawing a lot of similarities to today's game, as both contests lasted more than six hours. Of course the two games were marathons for two different reasons.
"I think we just approach it the same way we approach every other game," Reed said. "Tomorrow's game is a little more important obviously because it's an elimination game, but we're going to come out here with the same energy and enthusiasm that we always do and we're going to attack the hitters and be aggressive at the plate. We're going to go out there and play our game."
One game at a time. That has been the theme all week in preparation of the Louisville Regional and though the Wildcats were trying to avoid the loser's bracket that is where they are once again.
"We have one thing in front of us and that's tomorrow's ball game," Henderson said. "That's it and that's all we need to be worried about, so we need to do a good job with that. If we're fortunate enough to play well tomorrow then we can talk about the next game."
However, the Wildcats have a more immediate -- and more important -- task at hand. It also happens to be one that has escaped UK in its NCAA Tournament history.
In UK's last four NCAA Tournament appearances, the Wildcats have lost the opening game of the regionals in all four games, including 2012 when UK fell in 21 innings to Kent State -- another potential matchup in game two of this regional. Kentucky is making its eighth trip to the NCAA Tournament in program history, while looking to record only its second-ever opening game win in a regional. In the seven previous NCAA Regional opening-game appearances, UK's lone win came in 1988 vs. Rutgers.
For Kentucky to be successful, the Cats cannot afford to look past a team that enters its first NCAA Tournament since 2009, while riding a recent hot streak.
Kansas makes the trek to Louisville having won its last nine Big 12 conference regular-season games before entering postseason play, including 11 of its last 15 games overall. Prior to reeling off nine straight Big 12 regular season wins, the Jayhawks sat at 23-20 on the season with slim hopes of making the NCAA Tournament, but that's the funny thing about baseball: Any team can get hot at any time of the season.
For KU, it couldn't have happened at a better time.
"To win nine games in a row in any good league is hard, mathematically it's really hard if you just look at the statistics or percentages," said Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson. "They've got an older group. They got hot. They're playing well. They deserve to be here."
Friday's matchup on the diamond will mark the first between the two programs who have rich traditions on the hardwood. The two head coaches realize just how important that first game of the regional is. It can set the tone for the remainder of the regional or it can put you in a hole from the very beginning.
"I'm not sure I have a word other than, really important," said Henderson. "The only thing I can tell you is you have to win that game. Is it impossible if you lose? No, it's not impossible. As a coach, you know what you need to do to make that path as likely or as easy as you can, and it's winning the first game."
Two years ago the Wildcats were facing a similar situation in the Gary Regional with Purdue as the No. 1 seed. UK was matched up with Kent State in game one, while a potential Purdue tilt awaited if both teams took care of business. The unexpected happened in most people's eyes. Kent State outlasted the Wildcats in a marathon 21-inning contest that saw Kent State advancing to face the Boilermakers and UK already in a hole to face Valparaiso.
Henderson is making it a point to not let history repeat itself once again in 2014.
"Two years ago we're talking about Purdue," Henderson explained. "We don't need to talk about Purdue. We need to talk about Kent State and then the next day you're not playing Purdue anyway. You're playing Valpo. We need to do everything we can to play well tomorrow at 2 p.m. and then whoever we have is whoever we have."
Henderson's players have echoed the same statement. Current UK standouts Austin Cousino and just-named Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Year A.J. Reed were freshmen on that 2012 team that fell in the opening game of the Gary Regional. They are determined to not let that happen as juniors.
"We have to win the first one and whoever it may be after (Kansas), I think you just have to go out and play regardless of who the team is and who they are pitching," Cousino said. "We just have to come out ready."
"The first game is obviously the most important one," Reed said. "We don't want to start out in a hole and have to work our way back and beat a team twice to win the regional, so the first game is the most important and we're confident having Kyle (Cody) out there. He's going to give us a good effort and we're going to come out and play good defense and swing the bats well and our bullpen guys are going to do well, so we feel good about it."
Sophomore righthander Kyle Cody has the task of taking the mound in game one in hopes of starting Kentucky on a positive note. The Chippewa Falls, Wis., native enters Friday's start at 4-0 on the season with a 2.65 ERA, while coming off an impressive 4-2 win in the SEC Tournament vs. the top-seeded Florida Gators.
"I've been pitching well since Georgia and Hoover (for the SEC Tournament) was a big confidence-booster for me and I just want to keep things rolling for the team," Cody said. "I just have to go do my part. We have to win game one because it's a big deal to get here in the first place. I just have to have full confidence in myself and go up there and give a good start for the team."
UK's season won't end after Friday's game either way, but a win will go a long way in determining just how far the Wildcats can go, and if you didn't get the hint: Game one is a pretty big deal.
The experts had it pegged and the Wildcats had an idea it might be happening.
They still couldn't help but react with cheers when it became official that Kentucky would head to Louisville to open the NCAA Tournament with Kansas and Kent State joining the two rivals.
"I think we all kind of expected it," Austin Cousino said. "It'll be a tough one. I know Kansas has got a good team and Kent State has won the MAC I don't know how many years in a row. Louisville's a good club, impressive resume. But it'll be fun. It'll be a good weekend of baseball."
The Cats (35-23) earned their eighth all-time NCAA bid on Monday when they were tabbed the No. 2 seed in the Louisville Regional. UK's tournament run will begin on Friday at 2 p.m. ET on ESPNU against the third-seeded Jayhawks.
The Louisville Regional is rife with juicy plotlines. Beyond a potential in-state showdown on Saturday, familiar foe Kent State will also play at Jim Patterson Stadium this weekend. Two years ago, the Cats and Golden Flashes played an unforgettable 21-inning game in both team's NCAA opener.
"It kind of seems like it always sets up like that," Cousino said of the intrigue.
UK enters the tournament riding a wave of momentum. The Cats took two of three games in each of their final two weekend series before winning three games in three days over ranked opponents to advance to the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. They would fall to No. 2 national seed Florida there, but UK had already established itself as a threat.
"Our last conference weekend against Georgia we played really well and we played really well in the conference tournament," A.J. Reed said. "So we're ready to go out there and play hard and we feel like we can play with anybody in the country and we feel like we're one of those teams that nobody wants to play in the regionals."
Solidifying UK's status as a feared tournament team are Chandler Shepherd and Kyle Cody. The two pitchers battled injury this season, but returned to form at the SEC Tournament.
"I'm not sure you could say there's anything more important," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Obviously we're playing well. That's good, but those two guys are important. They have to pitch, and they have to pitch well."
As further evidence of the Cats' ability to make noise in the NCAA Tournament, UK boasts a 4-3 record against teams that received top eight national seeds, 11 wins over top-25 RPI teams and a two-game sweep of Louisville all while playing in the SEC, a league that set a record with 10 teams receiving tourney bids.
A potential rematch of UK and U of L, clearly, jumps off the page. The Cats don't dispute that.
"We always look forward to playing Louisville in the regular season and now to get to play them in the postseason is going to be a lot of fun and we're going to be ready for it and play a really good game," Reed said.
For that game to happen, both teams have to take care of business. And as UK vies for its first Super Regional appearance ever, Henderson knows the importance of winning on Friday.
"I can guarantee you that we will not be looking past Kansas, yeah. Our last three regionals we won six games of the three, and we're 0-3 in the first game," he said. "So I'm well aware of where we are. ... We need to worry about Kansas and do everything that we can to play well on Friday."
Whether that means Reed -- the presumptive national player of the year -- will start against Kansas remains to be seen.
"To be honest I don't know anything about Kansas offensively," Henderson said. "So, I think right now you'd anticipate that would be the way we would go: A.J. in the first game. But I'll sit down and I'll look at it, to be honest, and I'll just see what makes sense. I'll make a good decision."
On paper, the Jayhawks are solid. Kansas has a team batting average of .284 and scores 5.6 runs per game. On the mound, Kansas has an earned-run average of 3.51 playing in the tough Big 12.
"They're going to be a solid team," Reed said. "They're in the tournament for a reason so you can't take that for (granted) and, you know, we gotta come out there and play well against them and put up runs and throw well and play good defense."
No matter they opponent, the Cats feel good about their chances of doing just that.
"I think our offense is hitting its stride," Henderson said. "I think we pitched very well in the SEC Tournament. Defense is good and we seemed to get a lot of key hits over the course of the tourney. When you go to Hoover and win games like that, it gives you the confidence to pretty much go anywhere and know you're good enough to win. So I think right now it's get a couple days of practice in and stay hot."
Head coach Gary Henderson
Juniors A.J. Reed and Austin Cousino
Juniors A.J. Reed and Austin Cousino