Baseball Falls in NCAA Regional Championship
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- After eliminating No. 13 Michigan on its home field earlier in the afternoon, the No. 24 Kentucky Wildcats ran out of steam and pitching in the Ann Arbor Regional Championship, as No. 12 Arizona rode a career pitching performance from Eric Berger to the regional crown, eliminating UK with a 5-3 win on Sunday evening at Wilpon Complex.
Kentucky (44-19) wraps up one of its most successful campaigns in the 104-year history of the program, coming one win shy of advancing to the NCAA Super Regional. UK faced a daunting task after falling in Friday’s opener, needing to win four consecutive games to advance, including a win over UM at home and two wins over Arizona. The Wildcats won its first elimination game over a scrappy Eastern Michigan team 4-3 on Saturday. UK exploded for 12 runs in the first game on Sunday vs. Michigan, handing the second seed and host a 12-6 season-ending loss.
As head coach John Cohen’s first recruiting class, the group of seniors and two four-year juniors exits the program as the winningest class in the history of the program, posting 151 wins during their tenure, seven more wins then the 1991-94 club’s 144.
“I am really proud of our kids, they competed so hard for seven hours in a row,” Cohen said. “I thought they did a great job, we are not the most talented team in America but our kids compete as hard as any club I have ever seen. I am really pleased in the effort they gave, we just didn’t have a great offensive day.
"The way we went about putting the day together on the mound was brilliant. No question, (we lost) our two best arms -- Chris Rusin, he was first team All-Southeastern Conference, and threw ten pitches in our opener and couldn't go anymore, and James Paxton didn't pitch at all, he was the SEC pitcher of the week three weeks ago. Everybody has excuses and everybody has injuries, but boy it hurts when your (number) one and two (pitchers) can't pitch in a regional. Like every other coach in the country I'd like to think it would be a whole different situation, but for the fact that we didn’t have those two guys, and the way the other guys competed I'm really proud of the way the guys went about it."
A group that set apart dismantling the record books since arriving in Lexington, the 2008 season marked a school-record 44 wins, and school records ranking from highest fielding percentage (.974), putouts (1687), at bats (2157), runs scored (510), doubles (152), RBI (461), sac bunts (75), sac flies (38) and innings pitched (563).
With a roster depleted of pitching due to injuries and use earlier in the tournament, Kentucky turned a total of eight pitchers to patch its way through the game. Senior Brock Baber made his first career start in his 98th career appearance, an appearance total which ranks second all-time. Having pitched in the first game of the day and in the game on Saturday, Baber was able to go two innings, before UK turned to the makeshift bullpen. Baber (1-3) took the loss, allowing one two-run home run in the second inning. Seniors Tommy Warner, Aaron Lovett, Greg Dombrowski, Tyler Howe and Andrew Albers battled through the game for UK, with Howe making his first appearance on the mound since early April and Dombrowski pitching in relief for just the second time in the past three years.
Berger was magnificent throughout the game, going 7.1 innings, allowing five hits and three runs, striking out a career-high 11. With one of the top bullpens in college baseball, Arizona used three closer-type arms to finish out the game. Ryan Perry and Daniel Schlereth each got an out in the eighth inning and ace closer Jason Stoffel, the regional MVP, closed the door with a hitless ninth.
"(Berger) was lights out,” Cohen said. “You want to talk about a guy who can compete, I thought his stuff as we got to the middle of the game wasn't as good as it was early, but he just competed his heart out. I really love the way he competed, I loved his tempo. At the end he threw his breaking ball in the strike zone. He really got to both sides of the plate late. Early he was missing arm side a lot in the left handed batters box. In the middle of the game he just wanted to win the baseball game you could just tell. I'm a big fan."
UK rode the offensive output of its first five hitters as the lower half of the order combined to go 0-for-16 in the game with eight of the 11 UK strikeouts. Senior Brian Spear led the way, going 2-for-3 with his 10th homer of the season and a double, driving in a club-high two RBI. Keenan Wiley, Ryan Wilkes, Sawyer Carroll and Collin Cowgill each added a hit, with Cowgill launching his 19th homer of the year.
Individually in the UK record books, Carroll, Cowgill and Wilkes finish the year as some of the more prolific players in program history.
Carroll, a first-team All-American, exits as the career record holder for batting average (.386), eclipsing Jeff Abbott’s .380 mark from 1991-94. In addition, Carroll ranks as the season record holder for RBI (83), checking in 10th in career RBI (139) despite playing just two seasons in Lexington. Carroll ranks sixth all time in slugging (.656) and second in on-base percentage (.483).
Cowgill, a four-year redshirt junior and second-team All-American, ranks third in career home runs (37) and ninth in RBI (140). In season history, Cowgill set the school season record for runs scored in a season (80) and his 19 homers in 2008 rank eighth all time, joining Carroll’s 19 homers.
Wilkes transformed himself into one of the greatest players to ever wear UK blue, ranking among the career record holders in games played (215; 3rd), games started (208; 3rd), at bats (723; 7th), walks (119; 3rd), sac flies (19; 1st) and sac bunts (40; 1st).
Dombrowski (23-5 career) leaves as the career-record holder for winning percentage (.821), starting the fourth-most games in program history.
Wilkes, Carroll and Cowgill all earned All-Regional team.
"We have a play at the plate (in the fourth inning) where we think we have an out, and (in the seventh inning) we have a double play ball hit to the third baseman -- both those guys are excellent defenders and we just didn't get the outs there,” Cohen said. “If we did, we may win 3-2. When you're in a regional, defense is everything. When you face one of the best pitching staffs in the country, no doubt, when those opportunities present themselves you have to take advantage.”
Arizona got the early lead in the second innings, as T.J. Steele reached on a one-out single into centerfield. Pinch hitter Bobby Coyle connected on his first home run of the season to right field, also UA’s first pinch hit home run of the year.
Zona stretched its lead to 4-0 in the fourth, getting hit by pitch from Steele. With two strikes, Coyle attempted a sac bunt, but Lovett wisely fired to third to get the lead runner, C.J. Ziegler, who reached on a single. After a double steal put both runners in scoring position, catcher Dwight Childs laid down a bunt, right back to Lovett, charging off the mound. Lovett tossed the ball to Nidiffer, who before making what would have been a successful tag, had the ball pop out of his glove, allowing Steele to score. Freshman shortstop Bryce Ortega scored Coyle with a single, giving Zona a 4-0 lead.
UK answered in the bottom half of the fourth, as Cowgill got a pitch up in the zone and belted it for his 19th home run of the season, a monster shot over the left-field fence.
The Wildcats answered with another solo home run in the bottom of the sixth, as Spear ripped his 10th homer of the season, a full-count opposite field jack. Of UK’s four home runs in the NCAA Tournament, three came as opposite field homers.
Arizona added a run to its lead in the seventh, as Rafael Valenzuela reached on a one-out single, scoring on Brad Glenn’s fielders choice.
Kentucky would not go down without a fight as it narrowed the lead to 5-3 with a run in the bottom of the eighth inning. Carroll doubled down the line with one out and Spear followed with a double into the gap, narrowly missing a home run.