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 the 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 right field – 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 the 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 right fielder 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. “The 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’ll ever find. And I couldn’t be happier to be a part of it.”
UK got a two-hit game from Western Hills High graduate 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.