GARY, Ind. -- After playing seven scoreless innings, No. 25 Kent State got a three-run homer in the top of the eighth inning from Evan Campbell – the first homer hit in the tournament – leading the Flashes to their nation-leading 20th consecutive win, ending No. 11 Kentucky’s school-record season with a 3-2 loss in the NCAA Gary Regional Championship, on Sunday night at U.S. Steel Yard.
Kentucky (45-18) eliminated host Purdue in the first game of the day with a 6-3 win over the host, No. 14-ranked Boilermakers. With the win over Purdue to advance to face Kent State, UK won its school-record 45th game, eclipsing the school record of 44 wins in 2006 and 2008. In its last two NCAA Tournament appearances, UK has eliminated Big Ten host schools Michigan (2008) and Purdue.
“Obviously disappointed to lose,” UK head coach Gary Henderson said. “I’m really proud of our kids. I’m proud of the effort. I’m proud of the concentration. I’m very impressed and pleased with Chandler Shepherd’s effort tonight. Very good. Again, we played errorless defense.”
The two teams battled through seven scoreless on Sunday before the homer from Campbell, just a day in between playing 21 innings in the NCAA Tournament opener, the second-longest game in NCAA postseason history. After besting Kentucky 7-6 in the 21-inning thriller, Kent State posted a win over Purdue on Saturday and the Wildcats bested Valparaiso to advance to the Sunday round of the regional.
The game-winning homer from Campbell, his seventh of the year, hit metal railing below the yellow mark in rightfield – according to video from the WKYT-TV reporter Brian Milam. The ball bounced back into play, with two runners on base and two outs, but was immediately ruled a homer by the first-base umpire, who made the call from just on the edge of the infield grass.
“I didn't have a clear view in terms of what exactly happened I guess because I thought it was in the seats,” Henderson said. “I looked immediately to the first base (umpire) and he had already signaled home run, so I looked at second base guy and he was jogging in that direction looking. I thought immediately that two of them couldn't have missed it. I asked (assistant coach) Brad (Bohannon) and he said the ball was in the seats and that's kind of what I thought. I looked down...for about 10 seconds and looked up and the outfielders were conversing with one of the umpires.
“I thought it hit the guard rail and came back and then turned around to get the ball and the umpire called a home run,” UK rightfielder Cameron Flynn said. “I thought it hit right on the guard rail and then bounced back. Below the yellow line.”
“My first initial thought was he couldn't have missed three plays,” Henderson said. “The law of averages is staggering for that to happen so I just kind of assumed he got it right. That's obviously on me at that point. No doubt about that. I should have been out there jumping up and down and hollering but I actually thought he got it right. The guy is on the line, he should be able to get that. Ground rules were clear.”
Throughout the tournament, hosted at the independent league’s U.S. Steel Yard, all four teams could not get a ball over the fence. Campbell provided the first homer of the tournament as a game winner. During the eighth and ninth innings against the red-hot KSU club, UK belted balls that had the ability to sail out of the park in heroic fashion, as pinch hitters A.J. Reed and Jeff Boehm, and junior Luke Maile – playing with a pulled hamstring suffered in the 21-inning game – smashed balls that were caught up against the wall or on the warning track in the eighth inning.
UK starter Chandler Shepherd (3-1) worked a gem in a hard-luck loss in the best outing of his career, tossing 7.2 innings, allowing four hits and two runs, walking one and striking out four. Senior Alex Phillips replaced Shepherd, working the final 1.1 innings of his career – after picking up his eighth save of the year earlier in the day against Purdue – allowed two hits and one run.
“I just knew going into it that I had to throw strikes,” Shepherd said. “That’s what I tried to do. I knew that I had a great defense behind me, one of the best in the country in my opinion, so I wasn’t afraid to throw the ball in the zone.”
Kentucky and Kent State squared off in two instant classic contests in the three days, playing a total of 30 innings in two games, with both decided by one run.
“I’m really proud of what our returners, specifically, were able to do this year,” Henderson said. “I’ve said on numerous occasions they made a decision that they wanted to have a better experience and I was pleased, motivated, inspired by them all year. I think Luke Maile and Michael Williams were at the core of that. I think a lot of guys contributed but I think Kentucky baseball is at a place that we’re proud of and we’re in a spot moving forward where we can build on what we did.”
“I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of a team,” Maile said. “They way we reacted to all types of adversity this year is really impressive. I’m talking about this weekend but I’m also talking about the whole year. We played a doubleheader at Arkansas with our backs against the wall and we swept them. We had a bunch of things not go right for us against Tennessee on Friday night and we come out and we sweep them the final two games. It’s been all year. It’s been nonstop and this is a good group of guys. The core of this team and the younger guys that are going to be the core of this team are some of the most impressive people that you’re ever find. And I couldn’t be happier to be a part of it.”
UK finished the year with a staggering 15-8 record in one-run games and 18-10 record in one or two-run contests. A total of 44-percent of Kentucky’s games in 2012 were one or two-run contests. UK finished the year with a school-record 10-5 mark against top-10 teams and a
“I was pretty clear in my mind we were going to be in a one-run game,” Henderson said. “We've got to have set a school record for that and we've won most of them. You feel like you're going to be there. I felt great about Alex at the time but he left a ball up and he hit the ball out. You have to score more than two runs and get more than six hits to win most of the time.”
UK got a two-hit game from J.T. Riddle and hits from SEC Freshman of the Year Austin Cousino, Michael Williams, Zac Zellers and Boehm. Senior Thomas McCarthy drew a pair of walks and drove in a run.
Kent State (44-17) starter Tyler Skulina (11-2) worked seven innings, allowing five hits and two runs, walking two and striking out five. Casey Wilson picked up his seventh save of the year to lead the Flashes to the program’s first super regional.
The first inning went by quick as Shepherd retired Kent State in order, including striking out the first two batters. Tyler Skulina matched Shepherd’s first, retiring the first three UK batters in order, striking out one.
Shepherd kept it going in the top of the second, striking out one to retire the side for a second consecutive inning. Williams led off the Wildcats in the bottom half of the inning with a single up the middle. An out later, Williams was thrown out attempting to swipe second for the second out. Skulina forced a ground out to end the inning and keep the game scoreless through two.
For a third consecutive inning, Shepherd came out and sat down the Kent State batters in order, denying a hit through three innings of action.
Riddle reached on a base hit up the middle to start off the bottom of the third for Kentucky. Following a strikeout, Skulina caught Riddle leaning and picked him off at first for the second out of the inning. A strikeout ended the third and took the game into the fourth scoreless.
Kent State couldn’t get anything going against Shepherd in the fourth, going down in order for a fourth consecutive inning.
Kentucky threatened for the first time in the bottom of the fourth but failed to convert on the opportunity. Cousino reached on a hit by pitch and a walk of McCarthy gave Kentucky runners on first and second with no outs. Maile laid down a sacrifice bunt to put two runners in scoring position but the Wildcats couldn’t convert, leaving two runners stranded and remaining scoreless.
Shepherd came back in the top of the fifth and retired three consecutive batters, still yet to surrender a hit.
In the bottom half of the fifth, Zellers found his way into scoring position but the Wildcats weren’t able to bring the run home. Zellers led off the inning with a line-drive single into right center before moving up to second on a sacrifice bunt from Riddle. Skulina kept Zellers from advancing any further, striking out one and forcing a ground out to end the inning.
After retiring the first out of the sixth and 16 consecutive batters, Shepherd surrendered his first hit of the day, a one-out single into left field from Joe Koch. Shepherd didn’t allow the first hit to cause any damage, forcing a groundout and strikeout to end the inning.
Cousino came up for Kentucky in the bottom of the sixth and smoked a ball into center field but was tracked down by Kent State center fielder for the first out of the inning. McCarthy reached on balls but a line drive out to second doubled McCarthy off at first to end the sixth.
Rider singled up the middle to lead off the top of the seventh but the Wildcats erased the single with a 4-6-3 double play. With two outs, Roberts drilled a double into left center but Shepherd left him stranded, retiring T.J. Sutton on a line drive to Maile at first.
Skulinas came out and retired the side in the bottom of the seventh, striking out the leadoff before forcing two lineouts to take a scoreless game into the eighth.
Nick Hamilton led off the top of the eighth with a single into right center before moving over to second on a sacrifice bunt from Sawyer Polen. Shepherd walked Koch but forced Derek Toadvine to ground into a fielder’s choice, leaving runners on first and third with two outs. With left-handed leadoff Campbell coming to the plate, Henderson went to Phillips in the bullpen. Campbell stepped up for Kent State and knocked a three-run home run over the wall in right field. Phillips forced Rider to ground out but the damage was already done, Kent State took a 3-0 lead going into the bottom of the eighth.
Kentucky wasn’t going to roll over, Riddle singled into rightfield to lead off Kentucky in the bottom of the eighth. Boehm came in as a pinch hitter and drilled a double off the wall in center field, scoring Riddle from first for the Wildcats first run of the afternoon. Reed came on to pinch hit and drilled a ball down the rightfield line that was tracked down on the warning track. Cousino stepped up with one down and delivered a single through the left side to put the tying run on first. McCarthy hit a ball into centerfield that was tracked down for the second out but deep enough for Boehm to tag and score Kentucky’s second run of the game. With two outs and the tying run on first, Maile drilled a ball deep into center but the center fielder made a jumping snag on the warning track for Kent State to end the inning holding onto a 3-2 lead.
Phillips came on and finished the ninth for Kentucky, allowing a two-out hit but recovering to prevent any damage and take Kentucky into their last at bat down one.
The Wildcats weren’t able to overcome the deficit, going down in order to fall to Kent State 3-2.