TULSA, Okla. — After throwing 84 pitches in UNO’s Summit League tournament opener on Wednesday, Payton Kinney was asked if he could come back to get a few outs on championship Saturday if needed.
“I would not be opposed to it,” the senior said, then chuckled. He had a much bigger plan in mind.
With an NCAA tournament bid on the line, Kinney backed up his record-setting year with his best effort yet.
The right-hander from Firth shut out Oral Roberts over 7⅓ dominant innings in a 4-0 win that propelled top-seeded UNO into the NCAA regionals for the first time.
He allowed one hit against the 19-time league champions — an infield single to the game’s first batter — and racked up 10 strikeouts only three days after beating Western Illinois. Kinney retired 16 batters in a row in one stretch.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a gutsy, brave, dominant performance than what Payton’s done in this tournament,” UNO coach Evan Porter said. “That was unbelievable, and nothing short of remarkable. He’s an unbelievable guy.”
Kinney had hoped to start Saturday morning’s game at J.L. Johnson Stadium. UNO coaches held him back for the if-necessary game, to give him a little extra rest.
But he happily took the ball after the Golden Eagles forced a winner-take-all final with a 6-0 win to open the day. In winning the second game, Kinney improved his record to 11-1, matching UNO’s single-season mark while establishing a new one for its Division I era. Three of those wins came against Oral Roberts.
The Golden Eagles entered 2019 having won the Summit’s regular-season title in their last 18 years in the league and the conference’s postseason tournament in their last 19. UNO, picked to finish fifth in the six-team Summit in the preseason, halted those streaks by claiming both conference crowns.
And now, when the NCAA field is announced on Monday, “Omaha” will appear across from a No. 1 seed.
“It’s honestly tough to put it into words, but I’m so happy to do it with this group,” Kinney said. “We’ve got such hard workers and great dudes. We’re a family. To have this be the outcome ... it’s everything.”
The Summit League pitcher of the year added a championship most valuable player award to his growing list of accomplishments this season. He threw 13⅓ shutout innings in Tulsa this weekend.
Fellow seniors Grant Suponchick and Cal Hehnke closed out Saturday’s win. And classmate Braden Rogers, an Oklahoma native, starred offensively before a group of family and friends.
ORU’s pitching staff had strung together 21 consecutive scoreless innings while preserving the Golden Eagles’ hopes for another title. Rogers broke the scoreless streak with a second-inning homer.
When the Mavs left the bases loaded in the first inning of the final, UNO’s first baseman told teammate Jack Lombardi that their team was looking for something big to happen. Rogers provided it himself.
“The next thing I know, I get up to bat and do that. And our team exploded,” he said. “We had been waiting all day for something big like that to happen. I really think that kind of gave us all a jump-start.”
Keil Krumwiede tripled in Max Gamm later in that inning. Then Rogers hit a two-run blast in the sixth.
“To go out in my last game in Oklahoma like that in front of my family, and to do it with the teammates I have, is one of the best feelings I’ve ever experienced,” Rogers said. “And it’s definitely one of the best days of baseball you could’ve ever asked for as a player. That’s all you could wish for growing up.”
Oral Roberts forced the winner-take-all final by surviving consecutive elimination games after losing to the Mavs 3-2 on Friday afternoon. True freshmen Isaac Coffey and Trey Wolf threw back-to-back complete-game shutouts for the Golden Eagles to sustain their hopes for a 20th Summit tourney title.
Kinney, however, never let them get into the game in the finale. Only five men reached base on him.
“All of his innings, they went so easily,” Porter said. “And when he was missing, he was missing just barely. That was a good sign. It wasn’t like he didn’t have any of his stuff or he was flat. He was out there giving everything he had, and that’s what we needed of him. He stepped up in a major way.”
Kinney called the conference championship the pinnacle of his baseball career ... so far. He said it’s going to be “pretty surreal” when the Mavs are among the NCAA qualifiers on Monday. He’s all ready to go.
“The Mavs are hot,” he said. “We’re looking forward to playing another week of baseball, at least.”
UNO’s Summit League championship came in its second tournament appearance and in its fourth year of full Division I eligibility. Porter, a former UNO All-American, did his best to put it all in perspective.
“There’s more work to do. We’ve met some of our goals this year. But once you get hot, anything can happen in baseball,” he said. “I’m so happy for these current players and for everyone that’s played in this program or coached here. This will be a really fun week. This will be a good week for UNO baseball.”