But the Owls gave up three runs in the bottom of the eighth inning, allowing Ali’s hometown Louisville Cardinals to come back for a 5-3 super regional victory Friday night at Jim Patterson Stadium.
The Owls (40-23) will send ace Travis Bergen up against the Cardinals’ Anthony Kidston to try to extend their season to a third and deciding game Sunday.
“We don’t lose twice,” said second baseman Cornell Nixon, the former Lassiter High School standout. “I’ll be coming back with a bang. You better believe it.”
Four times in the first five innings, Louisville (49-15) stranded a runner on third base. Cardinals ace Kyle Funkhouser, meanwhile, was throwing a lot of pitches.
“They kept getting their leadoff guy on, but we kept pitching out of it,” Kennesaw State coach Mike Sansing said. “We felt good with our guys in the back end of the ’pen, but we just didn’t do enough offensively.”
The Owls had five hits, but only two through the first six innings. They drew five walks off Funkhouser and scored one of their runs on a throwing error.
Kennesaw State starter Jordan Hillyer worked out of jams early and often. In the first, he stranded runners on the corners by inducing a grounder from Alex Chittenden. In the second, he left another runner on third by getting Zach Lucas to fly out to left.
Louisville broke through with one run in the third inning.
Hillyer hit leadoff batter Kyle Gibson, who advanced to second on a line-drive grounder speared by first baseman Chris McGowan. McGowan was able to tag first from his knees for the out, but Gibson was in scoring position, and Nick Solak brought him home with a single to left.
The inning ended with Solak getting thrown out by Max Pentecost attempting to steal second base.
The Owls clawed ahead in the top of the fourth.
Kal Simmons and Jacob Bruce walked, and with one out, Bo Way singled to left to load the bases. It was the first of two hits for Way, only a few hours after being drafted by the Los Angeles Angels as a seventh-round pick.
McGowan singled off Chittenden’s glove at first to tie the game, and Kennesaw State took the lead on a would-be double play that Brennan Morgan beat out at first to score Bruce.
It was the first time in four postseason games that Louisville had trailed.
Louisville again threatened in the bottom of the inning, and Hillyer again wiggled out of trouble. After loading the bases, he induced a grounder from leadoff hitter Kyle Gibson. Third baseman Matt Bahnick easily scooped it up and stepped on the bag.
Kennesaw State added to its lead in the fifth. Nixon led off with a walk, took second on a sacrifice bunt by Simmons, then scored on a wild pitch when Gibson threw the ball into left field attempting to get Nixon at third.
Hillyer allowed a leadoff single and walked a batter in the bottom of the fifth. With two outs and both runners in scoring position, Will Solomon relieved Hillyer and struck out Corey Ray to end the threat.
Louisville shaved a run off the lead in the seventh. After Nick Solak doubled to right-center with one out, Chittenden came up two at-bats later and singled Solak home to make it 3-2.
The Cardinals put another leadoff batter on when Grant Kay singled off third baseman Jeremy Howell’s glove for a single. Kay stole second, then took third on a wild pitch.
Lucas walked, and Gibson tied the game with a perfect squeeze bunt on Owls closer Justin McCalvin — who had just come in for James Connell — on which Gibson was safe at first. Cole Sturgeon then advanced the runners with a groundout before Solak ripped a double into right field to give the Cardinals a 5-3 advantage.
“Everything just happened so quickly there at the end,” Sansing said. “There is a tomorrow. We’ve had a great run and we still have a lot of confidence in our teammates, in our players. We’ll be back (today).”
Louisville closer Nick Burdi allowed a two-out single in the ninth inning, but induced a popup from pinch-hitter Chris Erwin to end the game.
Kyle McGrath (2-1) pitched a scoreless eighth before Burdi came in to record his 17th save.
Two of the three eighth-inning runs allowed by McCalvin were credited to Connell (7-4).