Louisville Baseball is about to start play in the 2016 NCAA Tournament and the Cards are beginning their run in the same position that it was in before the season began: With High Expectations.
The Cards started as the #2 ranked pre-season team in the nation and are the #2 Overall seed in the Tournament. The Cards have done this despite an injury to a key middle infielder (Nick Solak) and early season struggles of its most highly regarded pitcher in Kyle Funkhouser. Louisville finished the regular season 33-1 at home and 47-12 overall.
Why Can Louisville Baseball Win the National Title?
Louisville’s success is multi-faceted but it really becomes apparent that the Cardinals’ starting rotation is a cut above its competition and the 1st step in explaining why Louisville has such a high success rate. Brendan McKay, Drew Harrington, Kyle Funkhouser are the weekend guys with a combined W-L record of 30-6 and mid-week starter Kade McClure is 12-0.
Louisville’s starters get DECISIONS. Just 9 of 59 games have ended without a Louisville pitcher getting a decision. As a result the Cardinal bullpen has remained sharp because UofL has been able rely on its starters to go deep into contests and WIN.
Kyle Funkhouser was a 1st Round Pick by the Dodgers in last June’s Major League Baseball Draft. He’s UofL’s all-time leader in wins and strikeouts and while he struggled to start the season, his pitching lately has been in top form…..just in time for the post-season. Also Kyle is the highest drafted player from last year’s draft that is playing in this NCAA Baseball Tournament.
Funk was the #3 man in the rotation for the latter half of the season and now Dan McDonnell has decided to not shake things up and restore Funkhouser back to the #1 (Friday Night) role. Drew Harrington was the ACC Pitcher of the Year & Brendan McKay is a coveted Major League arm that will probably be another 1st rounder for the Cards in the 2017 Draft. The Cards have the starting arms to contend DEEEEEEPPP into the post-season…and maybe all the way.
The Line Up
Louisville’s line up puts pressure on teams from top to bottom. Dan McDonnell also has OPTIONS!!! UofL’s 7, 8 and 9 hitters would be a lot of team’s 1, 2, and 3 hitters. McDonnell has different ways to combat right/lefty match-ups and other alternatives to produce runs when they need to. But the biggest thing is the constant pressure Louisville puts on pitchers at the plate.
There is a lot of discussion about Corey Ray as the leadoff batter because he hits for so much power and there are other players with better on base percentages. When Ray gets on base he’s a threat to advance or score…..and he can also has a potential for the extra base hit at the plate as well and leads the team in RBIs with 58 despite leading off…..that’s saying something. Corey Ray is projected as a Top 10 Selection in June Major League Baseball Draft. So getting him as many At-Bats is a good thing.
Will Smith/Colby Fitch rotate at catcher depending on the starting rotation. Smith rarely strikes out, hits for .370 with an OBP of .469 and Colby Fitch hits for .340 with on OBP of .454!!! When one catcher is active in the #2 hole the other is waiting for a clutch spot for Dan McDonnell and the rest of the Cards. This type of luxury isn’t found on any other ball club at Catcher.
Nick Solak was injured for most of April with a hand issue as a result of a hit by pitch vs. Virginia. Solak is back in the #3 hole and is Louisville’s best hitter with an amazing .377 batting average and .472 OBP. But Solak’s injury helped Louisville develop & gain experience for Drew Ellis & Devin Mann. Ellis has essentially found a spot in left field after filling the 2nd base spot mostly which has provided Louisville with another extremely capable bat. True Freshman Devin Mann also has had his opportunities at 2nd base as well and both players are hitting over .307. Solak’s injury provided a lot of valuable opportunity during ACC play for both Ellis & Mann…..and Louisville is better for it.
The steady Brendan McKay is as about as reliable as they come at the plate. He hits for .330 and always provides a quality at bat. Last year’s John Olerud Award Winner (for the nation’s best two way player) is as valuable in the batter’s box as he is on the pitcher’s mound. Many pro scouts project Brendan to be a 1st round selection next season as a left-handed pitcher, but Brendan gives Louisville a lot of power and consistency in the middle of its lineup.
UofL’s shortstop Devin Hairston is on fire batting .359 with a .410 OBP. Hairston has 44 RBIs because he takes advantage when runners get on base. Next to Devin at 3rd base and also in the line up is Blake Tiberi. Tiberi hits for power at .329 with 8 Home Runs and 45 RBIs. With all the batters in front of Blake he has a lot of opportunity to drive in runners and he routinely puts the ball in the gaps with 16 doubles (2nd on team).
At the bottom of the line-up Louisville has a group of guys who have produced some HUGE moments for the baseball game. Danny Rosenbaum averages .284 at the plate, but has provided a ton of timely Rosenbombs during his career. Colin Lyman & Logan Taylor rotate in the 8 spot and the results are similarly close to a .300 average. Both players are great base runners and would probably bat 1st or 2nd in 90% of all college baseball teams. Finally Drew Ellis took full advantage of the Nick Solak injury and made it clear that Louisville needed his bat in the lineup. Drew is hitting for .321 with an OBP at .448 almost of all of which came during conference play (spoke about him above).
Top to bottom Louisville’s lineup does not have a weak point and it provides a ton of balance that managers will struggle to match-up with with its starters and long-relievers. As the tournament wears on Louisville Baseball should be able to capitalize more and more while at-bat.
The Clutch Gene
We can analyze metrics until our brains hurt. But bottom line the Cards have hitters who come up clutch in big situations. Devin Hairston, Nick Solak & Corey Ray stand out in that regard. With the game on the line and with opportunity on the base paths these 3 Cardinal batters stand out. Time & time again these three players have come up HUGE for the Cards.
Dan McDonnell wants to pressure teams defensively on the base paths. Coach McDonnell wants to steal, he wants to bunt, he wants to hit & run. And as a result the Cards are able to manufacture runs regularly. The exceptions to this are Brendan McKay, Danny Rosenbaum, and Colby Fitch. Every one else is a major threat to steal at anytime. This level of speed challenges pitchers and with a team almost entirely comprised of players with OBPs in the .400+ level there are a lot of base runners to deal with.
Dan McDonnell doesn’t have a player on the roster from south of the state of Kentucky. It’s an unconventional approach in recruiting that has formed a special group that makes up the Cardinals baseball roster. Louisville is a veteran squad and they’ve played together and been in the NCAA Tournament (and Omaha before). Louisville knows how to win together and this team has more familiarity than nearly any other program in the country.
Where is Louisville Vulnerable?
The 4 Out Inning
When Louisville gives up 2+ runs in an inning it’s usually because of an error (mostly in the outfield) that gives the Cards’ opponent an extra out and a base runner. These types of mistakes are not common as UofL has just 48 errors in 59 games in 2016, but when they have occurred they have had an effect. Now that there is smaller room for error in the post-season it will be important for the Cardinal fielders to continue to play cleanly and support their great starting pitching and not stress their hurlers with unnecessary base runners.
The most calm & collected player for the Cards is Brendan McKay….and it’s for that reason that we’ll single him out because if Brendan McKay can get caught up in the emotion of a game any Cardinal can. We saw Brendan first come a little unglued vs. Miami earlier in the year when Canes’ coach Jim Morris contested that McKay’s 1st pitch of the game was not from the rubber. Brendan went on to go 5.1 IP with a season high 5 walks in a losing effort. McKay also had a tough 5th inning in the ACC Tournament vs. Clemson when he was visibly frustrated finding the zone. The Cards would go on to lose that game vs. Clemson and then needed help (which it did not get) to advance to the ACC Final.
Louisville Baseball’s motto is “So What, Now What?” Tough innings and plays will happen and for the most part UofL ball players have remained composed throughout the regular season….but this is the post-season and the stakes are much higher. Keeping composure is going to be necessary to win a game over the tournament.
Winning Once in Omaha
It is a long way to get to Omaha from the Regional round. But if Louisville is going to win a National Championship at the College World Series then the Cards will need to perform well in Omaha. That hasn’t been the case in its 3 trips to the CWS. In 2007 Louisville was a Cinderella but managed to win its only game (of 7 contests thus far in Omaha) out of 3 appearances in its College World Series history.
Being 1-6 at the College World Series isn’t ideal. But in 2013 & 2014 the Cards didn’t resemble the team that played in the Regional & Super Regional rounds while in Omaha. If Louisville wants to have a shot at winning the National Championship they’ll need to play loose and execute the same way that got them to the College World Series stage.
Of course the Cards will actually need to win its Regional & Super Regional in order to advance to Omaha. Easier said than done, but this winning once in Omaha is clearly an area where the Cards have faltered when on the big stage.
Who Needs to be Prepared to Step Up?
The ACC is certainly a premier league to get the Cards primed for this NCAA Tournament. But once tournament play begins the level of play rises across the board. So Louisville Baseball needs to step up collectively to meet that challenge. But there are two sets of individuals that are going to have to make a play, get an out, and/or execute at a critical time:
When you have starters like Louisville does then the Bullpen hasn’t been asked to do a lot. Zach Burdi, the Cardinal closer, has been phenomenal throughout the season and has been pitching his best of late. Having a closer like Burdi is a crucial part of the recipe to win the College World Series…..but it can’t just be Zach. At some point a Louisville starter is going to throw too many pitches too early and Lincoln Henzman, Jake Sparger, Anthony Kidston, Sam Bordner, Sean Leland, Adam Wolf or Shane Hummel is going to have to take the ball and throw the game of his life.
In the Super Regional format Louisville has the luxury of moving Kade McClure into the bullpen (just 3 games) as a long reliever and Dan McDonnell has more options in a 3 game set. But the opening weekend of the NCAA (and 1st weekend of Omaha should the Cards advance there) is a format where teams need to be prepared to start 4 different pitchers.
At some point the Bullpen is going to need to win Louisville a ballgame.
The College World Series & the NCAA Baseball Tournament is still relatively new to the Louisville Baseball fan, but watching over the past few years and one thing is apparent: Successful teams get huge plays and big moments from freshman during their NCAA run.
Louisville has several freshman candidates that have been used in key spots that may find themselves tracking down a ball in the outfield, in the batter’s box, on the pitcher’s mound or on the base paths with the game on the line. Guys like Devin Mann, Drew Ellis, Sam Bordner, or Adam Wolf could be in that spot.
The Camera Operators Down the Line
Hard to get around the fact that if Louisville had cameras down the line or better lighting on the foul poles that UofL might be playing for its 4th consecutive World Series in 2016. Instead the Cards blew a lead vs. Cal State Fullerton and ended their season in Louisville rather than Omaha.