Louisville baseball on the road again to Omaha

Dan McDonnell doesn’t have to remind players of the annual aspirations or the ultimate objective for University of Louisville baseball.

They are, in this order: Getting back to Omaha for the College World Series and winning a national championship.

Dan McDonnell: “You have to believe before you can achieve.”

Reminders abound throughout baseball complex. The wall behind his desk is a super magnified photo of Ameritrade Stadium. The same one adorns the wall of the team meeting room.  The outfield walls in Jim Patterson Stadium feature giant billboards commemorating three past trips to Omaha.

A banner on the front entrance to the stadium declares that the road to Omaha goes through Louisville. The coaches, the players and the fans share the same expectation of getting back to Omaha, of someday getting out of Omaha with the biggest trophy of them all.

The coach went to the College World Series as a college player at The Citadel in 1990.  He expects it, always anticipates returning.

“You got to believe it before you can achieve it,” McDonnell said. “I felt like this year I didn’t have to say it as much, which is good.  It’s understood.  It’s why the kids are here.  It’s what the fans expect here and I’m really proud of that.  That’s a neat place to be – a program where the expectations are to go to Omaha and win a national championship.”

The season begins for the Cardinals this weekend in Clearwater, Fla., with a Friday game at 3 p.m. against Alabama State, a Saturday game at 6 p.m. against Maryland, and a Sunday 1 p.m. game against Ball State. No television but the games will be broadcast on 93.9 The Ville.

The opening home game is against Eastern Kentucky on Wednesday at 3 p.m., followed by a three-game weekend series against Nebraska-Omaha.

Five of the top UofL baseball games ever

Nick-SolakAfter nearly a century in obscurity, University of Louisville baseball has established itself as a major player, finishing among the top 10 teams the past three seasons.

Die-hard baseball fans would argue that post-season baseball is every bit as exciting as watching football on autumn night or basketball on a winter afternoon. Something like hitting a massive underdog sports bet that no one but you saw happening. If you have been in the same situation but didn’t get around to placing that bet, it’s good to learn the odds before one makes a wager.

While many great games have undoubtedly been lost to the annals of history, by magnitude and importance to the program, here are five of my top UofL baseball games of all-time.

June 3, 2007: Louisville 8, Miami 7

UofL has been to the College World Series three times in the last decade. But trips to Omaha (or even Regionals) were far from imaginable most of the program’s history. That all started to change with the arrival of manager Dan McDonnell in 2007.

Third-seeded UofL had already recorded the program’s first ever NCAA regional win two days prior, a 13-7 comeback win against perennial power Miami. After losing to Missouri the next day, a re-match with the Hurricanes loomed. Louisville won an 8-7 thriller thanks to four runs batted in by Jorge Castillo. The Cards would go on to eliminate Missouri and Oklahoma State en route to the program’s first ever College World Series berth.

May 24, 2008: Louisville 6, Cincinnati 3

Despite earning a trip to Omaha the year before, the Cards had still never won a conference tournament champion in their history. But a second consecutive 40-plus win season put UofL in position to end the drought against rivals Cincinnati in the Big East Conference.

Deadlocked at 3-3 in the top of the 8th, a two-run double from Stewart Ijames broke the tie to give the Cards a late edge. First baseman Andrew Clark would add an additional run on a single later that inning, allowing Louisville to win their first conference tournament and make their third trip to an NCAA Regional in history.

June 9, 2013: Louisville 2, Vanderbilt 1

Despite multiple regular season conference titles and four seasons in excess of 40 wins, the Cardinal nine had been unable to find their way back to Omaha since 2007. But a new class of Cards now had the opportunity to punch their ticket by beating #2 Vanderbilt in the 2013 Nashville Super Regional.

The Cards won game one narrowly 5-3, and the second game was expected to be a pitcher’s duel as they faced the Commodores’ 14-0 Tyler Beede. He would allow two runs on five hits, that was all Louisville needed with Jeff Thompson giving up only three hits in a 2-1 win, sending the Cards back to Omaha.

June 6, 2014: UofL 5, Kennesaw State 3

A crowd of 4,235 turned out at Jim Patterson Stadium to watch Louisville try and clinch their second straight trip to Omaha against the visiting Kennesaw State Owls in the 2014 Super Regional.

They would not be disappointed, as the Cardinals rallied back from an early 4-2 deficit to regain the lead in the fifth inning. The big hit, a two-run home run by freshman Nick Solak. Right hander Drew Harrington would earn his 12th win of the season.

April 19, 2016: UofL 7, Kentucky 6

Whether it’s basketball, football, lawn bowling or anything else, there are few simpler joys in life than watching UofL beat UK. That’s become a frequent occurrence on the diamond lately, with Louisville winning the last five games.

UK led most of the way, but coughed up three runs in the seventh inning and then two more in the eighth, allowing UofL to tie the score at 6-6. For a second straight season, UK would suffer a walk off defeat, thanks to a run-scoring single up the middle by Devin Hairston.

Louisville baseball sets attendance mark during 2016 season

UofL fans depart Jim Patterson Stadium following final game but before setting an all-time attendance record.
UofL fans depart Jim Patterson Stadium following a loss in the final game but not before setting an all-time attendance record.

“I’m really proud of our fans. I was hoping we were give them one more day, one more game.”

One more game may have gotten Dan McDonnell’s baseball team into its fourth College World Series. One more out, a couple more strikes, a few less balls. What could have been.

The good news is the University of Louisville baseball team broke the 100,000 mark in attendance for the first time in the program’s history during the 2016 season.

UofL baseballThe Cardinals attracted a total of 101,415 for 39 games, including five NCAA tournament games, or an average of 2,600 spectators per game. Total attendance for the NCAA regional games was 22,461 or 4,492 per game.

Total attendance for 34 regular season games was 78,874 or 2,330 persons per game.

The second game in a three-game series against Clemson on April 16 drew the largest crowd of the season, a total of 4,950 fans.

Second largest was 4,784 in the Super Regional final against Santa Barbara, followed by 4,770 against Western Michigan in the first game of the Regional, 4,642 against Kentucky, and 4,634 for the first game of the Super Regional against Santa Barbara.

Deja vu for Zack Burdi and Louisville baseball

Another painful end for Dan McDonnell.
Another painful end for Dan McDonnell. 

Probably the best University of Louisville baseball team since Dan McDonnell arrived in 2007. That’s saying a lot with three College World Series appearances behind him.

Seven players batting over .300 in the starting lineup, four pitchers with nine wins or better, four with an earned run average of 2.54 or less. Three players drafted in the first round of the major league draft, a total of eight overall.

Zack Burdi is comforted by a teammate after the loss.
Zack Burdi is comforted by a teammate after  loss that eliminated UofL from another title hunt.

Such a good team on paper … and on the field. But baseball can be a cruel game, unforgiving much of the time, disrespecting even the best of teams. A formidable UofL baseball team is surprisingly derailed again, falling by the way side, again watching others compete for the national championship.

Such a sad way for one of college baseball’s best closers to go out. Deja vu all over again.

Zack Burdi, for a second year in a row, giving up a lead, yielding a home run to seal another 4-3 defeat of the University of Louisville in a Super Regional at Jim Patterson Stadium.

The 2015 defeat at the hands of Cal State Fullerton, the latest to California Santa Barbara, both cruelly denying UofL access to the College World Series. Giving up a 3-0 lead in the latest loss,  a grand slam home run after Burdi had agonizingly loaded the bases.

Coach McDonnell meeting with his team for quite a while in the outfield after the game, taking longer than usual to get to the post-game press conference.

“I wouldn’t be able to get through what I told Zack,” McDonnell told the reporters at the presser. “I walked out there and hugged him. Because you know he’s hurting.

“What he and his brother (Nick) and his family have meant to this program  … I am forever grateful. I just don’t want him to blame himself. It’s not fair. It’s a team game. I could have coached better. We could have scored a few more runs.”

Drew Harrington coming through with a masterful performance in his final game, pitching into the eighth inning after striking out 12 batters, giving up six hits, walking one batter and holding the visitors scoreless.

Harrington was among the first players to hug Burdi after the game. “It was tough … but he’s a tough competitor and he will fight back. I just told him I was looking forward to seeing him play at the next level.”

Brendan McKay rounds second after hitting his sixth home run. (Cindy Rice Shelton photo.)
Brendan McKay rounds second after hitting his sixth home run. (Cindy Rice Shelton photo.)

Sophomore Brendan McKay paced the Cardinals at the plate, going two-for-four, including a home run. Sophomore Blake Tiberi was three-of-four with a RBI double. Senior Danny Rosenbaum added two hits and drove in a run.

McDonnell, so deserving of a much better outcome, an individual loved by his players and the fans, again serving notice.

“As I said last year, you will see me again. This program will be back.”

Louisville baseball faces once and future reality

Season on the brink.

Never take anything for granted with this University of Louisville baseball team. Overconfidence will inevitably give way to subjection, having your butt handed to you.

Heady stuff, getting seven players drafted on the first two days of the Major League Baseball draft. Some team this Louisville baseball team, loaded with good hitters and pitchers, expected to go a long way.

Even Las Vegas caught up in the expectations, making UofL a 4/1 favorite to win the NCAA baseball tournament, ahead of Miami at 9/2, Florida at 5/1, Texas A&M at 11/2 and Mississippi State at 8/1.

Brendan McKay talking two days ago about the advantages of playing at home, sticking with the routine, enjoying phenomenal fan support and all the other positives — as opposed to a West Coast team playing a baseball game at what would be 9 a.m. in its time zone.

Playing at home in the Super Regional, home sweet home, where the Cardinals had won 34 of 35 games this season.

Welcome to reality.

Blake Tiberi not ready to end UofL baseball season just yet.
Blake Tiberi not ready to end UofL baseball season just yet.

Louisville dropping a 4-2 decision to California Santa Barbara on Saturday before 4,634 fans at Jim Patterson Stadium. UofL baseball is one game away from being eliminated, ending one of the best seasons in the program’s history.

McKay going eight innings but giving up nine hits and four runs while dropping his fourth game against 12 losses this season. The Cardinals managing eight hits against UCSB’s Shane Bieber but unable to capitalize.

“It’s baseball,” said UofL Coach Dan McDonnell. “You tip your hat. They (UCSB) played hard. They swung and they found some holes. It’s just baseball. It’s nothing you’ll stay up late and try to dissect tonight.”

Blake Tiberi, with a couple of hits, including a home run, and Devin Hairston, also with two hits, providing UofL’s highlights. Tiberi also providing encouragement after the loss, “I don’t think we’re panicking or freaking out. I think we are ready to get back at it.”

Backs against the wall now. At least one more game, Sunday at noon. Not possible to take anything for granted.