Story courtesy of Kent State Sports Information
– Excellence is the standard when it comes to the Kent State baseball program.
The late New York Yankees captain Thurman Munson was a two-time First Team All-Mid-American Conference standout for the Blue & Gold from 1967-68 before blossoming into a two-time World Series champion, seven-time All-Star and 1976 American League MVP. A Kent State baseball player has been selected in the MLB First-Year Player Draft 80 times. Eleven Mid-American Conference regular season championships have been won. Ten more conference tournament crowns have been captured.
Despite 11 proud previous trips to the NCAA Tournament, one milestone had never been reached: an NCAA Regional Championship and a berth in the national tournament's round of 16 known as the Super Regionals.
All of that changed on a pleasant evening at U.S. Steel Yard in Gary, Ind., on Sunday, June 3, when, at 10:15 p.m. ET, Kent State sophomore right fielder T.J. Sutton (Uniontown, Ohio) squeezed a fly ball out off of the bat of Kentucky junior left fielder Zac Zellers in his glove to clinch a dramatic 3-2 NCAA Championship Gary Regional title for the Blue & Gold over the Big Blue to send the Golden Flashes soaring to heights they had never before reached.
It took a three-run home run to right field courtesy of junior center fielder Evan Campbell (Beloit, Ohio) in the top of the eighth inning and a spectacular, rally-killing leaping grab at the wall in deep center by the Second Team All-MAC selection to help get it done after sophomore right-handed starting pitcher Tyler Skulina (Strongsville, Ohio) was locked in a nail-biting scoreless battle with Kentucky freshman righty Chandler Shepherd through the first seven frames.
"It's unbelievable," said eighth-year head coach and 2012 MAC Coach of the Year Scott Stricklin, who lettered three seasons as a catcher at Kent State, earning All-MAC honors in 1992 and '93. "You just close your eyes, dreaming about this moment for a long time. You get there in the ninth inning with a one-run lead, and we got it done. It's just beyond words."
Ranked No. 25 in the nation according to Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, the Golden Flashes (44-17) ran their nation-long winning streak to 20 games – including seven in the post-season – courtesy of the victory over the Wildcats (45-18). The 2012 MAC Regular Season and Tournament champions, Kent State has won 35 of its last 42 games – including 24 of 26. The Flashes won a wire-to-wire regular season title and followed it up by going a perfect 4-0 in the MAC Tournament to clinch their fourth straight conference tournament crown. Kent State, the regional's No. 3 seed, advanced to its second straight NCAA Regional Winner's Bracket Final by outlasting Kentucky, 7-6, in 21 innings in the regional opener Friday (June 1) – the second-longest game in the history of the NCAA Tournament – then knocked off the regional host and top seed, No. 16 Purdue, 7-3, Saturday (June 2).
The Golden Flashes now will travel 2,492 miles to Eugene, Ore., to square off with No. 10 Oregon next weekend (June 8-11) in a best-of-three-games NCAA Super Regional series at PK Park. Dates and times will be announced Monday (June 4) at 11 p.m. Tickets for the Eugene Super Regional tickets are currently on sale at www.GoDucks.com.
Sunday's regional final was a true pitcher's duel in every sense of the word. Kent State did not muster a base runner off of Shepherd until fifth-year senior left fielder and team co-captain Joe Koch (Austintown, Ohio) – starting in place of injured freshman Alex Miklos (Grove City, Pa.) – cracked a one-out single into left to break up Kentucky's perfect game bid.
Meanwhile, Skulina and Kent State's defense bailed the Golden Flashes out of several jams in the early going. Kentucky senior catcher Michael Williams led off the bottom of the second with a leadoff single back up the middle, but was caught stealing one out later on a perfect pickoff throw from senior catcher and 2012 Lowe's Senior CLASS Award finalist David Lyon (Emporium, Pa.).
Sophomore second baseman J.T. Riddle got the third inning going for Kentucky with a leadoff base hit back up the middle, but Lyon hit his mark again, picking him off to douse another threat.
Kentucky put the heat on again in the fourth. Freshman center fielder and Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year Austin Cousino was hit by a pitch to start the frame, then moved up to second on a wild pitch. Senior third baseman Thomas McCarthy followed by drawing a walk. Cousino and McCarthy both advanced 90 feet on a sacrifice bunt by junior second baseman Luke Maile. Skulina dug deep, though, by getting Williams to line out to short for the second out and redshirt junior right fielder Cameron Flynn grounded out to first to crush the Kentucky opportunity.
McCarthy tried to give the Wildcats a one-out spark in the sixth by coaxing a walk, but Maile lined out into a 4-3 double play to squash the Kentucky chance.
The Golden Flashes finally broke through in the eighth. Redshirt junior designated hitter Nick Hamilton (Avon Lake, Ohio) led off with a single to center. Freshman third baseman Sawyer Polen (Wooster, Ohio) moved Hamilton to second on a sacrifice bunt. Koch drew a walk to put two runners on for Kent State. He was knocked off the bases on a force play that allowed sophomore second baseman Derek Toadvine (Springfield, Ohio) to reach safely and put runners on the corners. After striking out four and allowing just four hits and two walks in seven innings of work, Shepherd was lifted in favor of senior southpaw reliever Alex Phillips. The call to the bullpen proved costly for Kentucky, as Phillips immediately surrendered the three-run bomb to Campbell to send the Blue & Gold faithful into a frenzy.
"That was the biggest hit in the history of Kent State baseball," said Stricklin.
The Wildcats did not go down quietly, though. Riddle led off the home half of the eighth with a single down the right field line and scored on a pinch-hit double by freshman Jeff Boehm, cutting Kent State's lead to 3-1 and chasing Skulina from the game in favor of junior right-handed reliever Casey Wilson (Sagamore Hills, Ohio). Cousino singled through the left side one out later to move Boehm over to third. Kentucky made it a one-run ballgame when McCarthy served up a sacrifice fly to center to allow Boehm to tag up and score. Maile gave one a ride to deep center field, but Campbell made a leaping grab to rob him of an extra-base hit and end the inning.
Wilson came back out for the bottom of the ninth with the chance to close out the regional title after Kent State's bats went down in order in the top half of the frame. He got Williams to pop out to Lyon, then got Flynn swinging to set the stage for the fly out to right by Zellers, nailing down his team-leading seventh save of the 2012 season and sparking the most memorable dogpile in Kent State history.
Skulina earned the pitching victory for Kent State, improving to 11-2 on the season to match Andy Sonnanstine (2004) for the most mound triumphs in a single season in Kent State history. He struck out five over seven frames.
Stay tuned to KentStateSports.com and follow on Twitter @FlashesBaseball for more updates on Kent State's road to the 2012 Eugene Super Regional.