But beating the fourth seed in the Lexington Region proved to be no easy task. On Friday, Ball State handed Kentucky an early defeat by holding them to just one run and four hits. Sunday's, however was quite a different ball game.
Kentucky, having rediscovered their offense against Notre Dame in their first elimination game, pounded out 19 hits against the Cardinal pitching staff. And the Batcats would end up needing every one of them, as Ball State rallied late. With the afternoon win, Kentucky earned the right to continue playing in the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky wasted no time, jumping all over Ball State's starter, Ryan Degeeter, in the first inning.
After a pair of walks put runners on first and second, Michael Bertram sliced a line drive into centerfield to score the first run of the game. John Shelby quickly followed with a line drive single of his own, pushing across another run to give the Batcats an early 2-0 advantage.
Ball State picked up a run in the bottom half of the first on an RBI single from first baseman Brad Miller.
With two outs in the second inning and runners on first and second, Sean Coughlin hit a double that rolled all the way to the wall, allowing both base runners to score to give Wildcat starter Tommy Warner a 4-1 cushion.
But Ball State was determined to make Sunday afternoon's contest a spirited one. The Cardinal's answered again in the bottom of the second, loading the bases against Warner. With nobody out, Matt Gard hit a ground ball to second base. John Shelby made the play, retiring Gard at first, but the fielder's choice allowed all runners to advance and one to score.
The next batter, shortstop Eric Earnhart, hit a high fly ball to Shaun Lehmann. Lehmann made the grab, but his throw to the plate was not in time to nail Kyle Dygert, who was tagging from third.
A wild pitch from Warner allowed the tying run to reach third base. With two outs, Matt Singleton poked a single into right field to knot the game at 4-4. With Warner struggling, UK head coach John Cohen called upon the services of Matt Robinson, who has rescued the Cats with long relief appearances on a consistent basis. Robinson shutout Ball State for the next five innings, allowing the Wildcat offense to seize control of the contest.
Bertram and Shelby got things going again in the third inning, opening the frame up with back-to-back singles. Billy Grace successfully sacrificed them up, and Ryan Wilkes doubled off the wall to score them both. Later in the inning, Wilkes scored on an Antone DeJesus sacrifice fly as Kentucky jumped back in front 7-4.
Ball State got one back in the bottom half, but the Batcats continued to hang crooked numbers on the scoreboard against Ball State's pitching staff.
With a man on and two down, Shelby smashed a home run into the crowd standing behind the right-center field wall, giving Kentucky a 9-5 advantage, their biggest of the afternoon.
Shaun Lehmann did his part to protect that lead. Lehmann, who has wowed Wildcat fans with spectacular defensive plays all year long, saved his best glove work for Sunday afternoon. With a man on in the fifth inning, Kyle Dygert smoked a line drive that was well in the alley in left-center field. Lehmann tracked the ball, dove and made an unbelievable catch. He quickly rose to his feet and fired to Shelby, who relayed to first to turn a double play and prevent Ball State from having the opportunity to score.
Lehmann pitched in offensively as well, ripping an RBI triple in the top of the seventh. DeJesus would later drive Lehmann in with a two-out single, making it 11-5 in favor of Kentucky.
But Ball State would not go down without a fight. The Cardinals hit three singles to load the bases in the eighth against Matt Robinson, who seemed to be running out of gas. With one out, Mike Sullivan singled softly to center, scoring two runs. After Robinson intentionally walked Brad Miller, Wildcat closer Andrew Albers entered the game to nail down the win.
He got the job done, but it was definitely not aesthetically appealing.
With the bases loaded Justin Rogers, who hit the 2 RBI double against Albers that gave the Cardinals the 3-1 win on Friday night, singled to drive in another Ball State run and cut Kentucky's lead to 11-8. With the bags still full, Albers would walk in one more run before inducing a fly out to get out of the inning.
But the ninth inning would go much smoother, as Albers struck out Singleton to secure survival for the Wildcats. The Batcats hustled to do a quick press conference and take a breather before retaking the field for warm-ups.
Kentucky will take on the College of Charleston, who has yet to be beaten, at 7 p.m. on Sunday evening in a one-way elimination game. Kentucky, who has overcome early disappointment to be one of the final two teams alive in the Lexington Regional, will have to defeat the second seeded Cougars twice in order to advance to the Super Regional round of the NCAA Tournament.
But for Sunday night, the Batcats just hope they have enough lives left to stave off elimination one more time.
Stay tuned to Kentucky Sports Report as Matthew George and KSR bring you continuing, up-to-the-minute coverage of the UK baseball team as they progress through the NCAA tournament.