NC State will have to do this this hard way, but so it goes, so often. The Wolfpack would have advanced to the next round of the tournament by beating Kentucky Sunday night, but the Wildcats prevailed with an 8-6 decision, forcing a winner-take-all contest Monday night.
Catcher Andy Cosgrove staked NC State to an early lead with a two-RBI double in the second inning, and Kentucky quickly answered in the next frame to even the score. Wolfpack starter Brian Brown played with fire during much of his start, and while he was decent enough to prevent a third consecutive deep dive into the bullpen, he was not good enough to deliver a win.
Kentucky’s excellent offense was never much fooled by Brown’s stuff and he was constantly working around base runners to stave off big innings. The Wildcats plated five on Brown’s account and broke through with four runs in the decisive sixth inning to turn a 4-3 lead into an 8-3 edge.
Joe Dunand got three back for the Pack with a loud shot out to right field in the seventh, but there were no more rallies to be had; Kentucky brought in shut-down reliever Logan Salow following Dunand’s homer, and he closed out the game with 2-2/3 innings of no-hit work.
If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that Kentucky had to use Salow at all. Dunand’s shot pressed him into service, and while he threw only 32 pitches, he’ll carry fatigue into tomorrow night, when he might have otherwise been expected to handle long relief. Kentucky might still try him in that role, but a night of work takes a toll.
For Elliott Avent, the big question—as usual—is how to order what’s left of his thin pitching staff. I suppose you could say Kentucky did him a favor Sunday night when it took the lead, since at that point Avent clearly decided to throw the back end of his bullpen rather than commit completely to winning the game and using Johnny Piedmonte or Austin Staley.
Does that pay off? Who knows. Everything’s a calculated gamble of some degree this time of year. But those kids will be available Monday night; ditto Michael Bienlien and Cory Wilder and, perhaps, Joe O’Donnell. Is that enough to see the Pack through?
State’s offense has not been a problem this weekend, but does this team have enough pitching? That was the question coming into the weekend, and it’s the question that lingers into Monday.