McDonnell again raises expectations for UofL baseball

Former UofL baseball players Will Smith, of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Brendon McKay, of the Tampa Bay Rays, shared their experiences (Mike DeZarn photos)

By Barbara Springer

Seven words.

“Grass. Track. Wall.”
“That ball is gone!”

Words from play-by-play announcer Sean Moth that get University of Louisville baseball fans on their feet, roaring. Words that inspire and challenge baseball players to strive even harder. Words to drive this team all the way to Omaha.

Ranked number one by D1 baseball, this 2020 team begins competition February 14 following a 51-18 record last season. The 2019 team made it to the semifinals of the College World Series, their fifth trip in Coach Dan McDonnell’s 13 seasons here. He begins this season with four seniors to lead a team heavy with freshmen and sophomores.

Junior pitcher Adam Elliott was awarded the Muhammad Ali Leadership Scholarship by Ali’s widow, Lonnie Ali (Mike DeZarn photo).

Last year’s team had its highest final ranking in program history, with a No. 3 ranking, and the winningest program in all of Division 1 baseball. Moreover, the players posted the most conference wins since 2015 among Power 5 programs. Fifteen former Cards have made Major League debuts since 2014.

Coach McDonnell announced during the team’s Leadoff Dinner Friday evening that the motivational theme this season is “Somewhat Higher.” Since August, the fall semester GPA was a record 3.35, with 25 hours of community service per athlete. The players enjoyed a team-building trip to the Dominican Republic last fall, stretching themselves as they worked with children in teaching and fun, as well as community service. Coach Mac recalled the trip, saying it “opens your heart and lights a flame. Keep it lit and serve in Louisville.”

Al Greener, the UofL Pep Band Director who plays the organ at games, was doing his thing.

Just a few years ago, at a luncheon, McDonnell spoke to the challenges of luring quality players to Louisville, where the season may very well begin on a cold and rainy day. Or with snow falling. When the stands might be fairly empty on a weekday night. But, somehow, he has found a way to convince prospects to take a chance, to challenge themselves.

Maybe he has succeeded because of the facilities, which have undergone dramatic transformations in the last few years. Maybe the attraction is the coaching staff, which has remained very stable.

Maybe recruits and their parents want to be a part of the program’s notable successes. Maybe even the caliber of the opponents is the attraction.

Whatever, he has succeeded, and with all the pageantry and fanfare and video excitement of the evening plus the presence of former players and current pros, the coaching staff pulled out all the stops and brought the legendary Brendan McKay and Will Smith out. Both have their faces and numbers on that outfield wall at Jim Patterson Stadium.

McKay made his big league debut last June on the mound for the Tampa Bay Rays, while Smith took his position behind the plate in May for the LA Dodgers. The audience enjoyed listening to their conversational Q&A with emcee Moth for 30 minutes.

It is a given that fans in the audience Friday night will show up at Patterson Stadium, even for a cold February or March game, waiting, no, expecting to hear GRASS. TRACK. WALL. THAT BALL IS GONE!

Seven words.

Omaha Bound

Tough times make for better Louisville baseball in post-season play

By Ed Peak

There are certain things I know about this University of Louisville baseball team. I know it is not coach Dan McDonnell’s best or most talented in his 13 seasons. This Cardinal team has had more than its share of ups and downs.

There was so much drama in Monday's game I had to turn my radio broadcast off at work.

Getting just four hits and scoring two runs in two Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament losses last week clearly signaled a red flag. After a sluggish win Friday over UIC in the first NCAA Tournament game, Illinois State beat the Cardinals to send the No. 7 overall seed into the losers bracket. They would hang on for a two-run win over Indiana on Sunday.

UofL lost top reliever Michael McAvene to an ejection with two outs in the ninth inning against IU when he questioned umpire Ken Langford’s call of a pitch. He did not get a warning, he got ejected. Umpires sometimes overreact. Players sometime overreact. He will sit out three more games. That’s the rule, fair or not.

Dan McDonnell has had plenty of success but says it has never come easily.

There was so much drama in Monday’s game I had to turn the radio broadcast off at work. When Louisville went up 3-1, I thought this might be in the bag. But a line drive mishandled by Trey Leonard in centerfield was deemed a three base error. The next batter singled and the game was tied 3-3. Nothing came easy in the Regional.

“It shouldn’t come easy,” said McDonnell. “All of these teams have done something that has gotten them here. I talk all the time about toughness. Everything in life isn’t going to be easy, go the way you think it should. The same on the baseball field.”

The thing that impresses me most about this team is its mental toughness. It is team-first driven. These players seem to really care for each other. A lot of that had to do with McDonnell and the way he coaches and the kind of person he is.

When was the last time you heard a Louisville player in trouble off the field or discipline for an off the field problem. Never. Athletes and coaches a like have egos. Bigger than most people. They are sure of their abilities beyond belief sometimes. 

What also impresses me is the Louisville players are classy, short on ego.  No, they aren’t perfect and they’re not choir boys. Just look at some of  players that have gone to play professionally. A long list, including Brenden McKay, Will Smith, Drew Ellis, Zack Burdi, Corey Ray, Nick Solak, Chris Dominguez. I’m sure I’ve left some names out but the list is impressive.

Toughness and class abound in the McDonnell’s baseball program, and UofL will continue to reap the benefits in post-season play.

Binelas gets a grizzly hug, UofL baseball another Super Regional

Trey Leonard is among the first players to congratulate Chris Binelas following that bases-loaded single in the bottom of the ninth inning. The ball eluding the second baseman, giving the University of Louisville baseball team a 4-3 win over Illinois State.

Alex Binelas comes through the base-loaded winning single in the bottom of the ninth (Photos by Charlie Springer)

Leonard, replacing Lucas Dunn in centerfield in the eighth inning, misjudging a fly ball in the top of the ninth. Two outs at the time, UofL ahead by two runs, needing one out. Leonard’s error will open the gate for Illinois State, tying the score on the next play. 

Visions of an extended extra inning games looming for the crowd of 2,878 at Jim Patterson Stadium. The game had moved along at such a nice pace, lasting only 2:48 of playing time. No extra innings today, thank you.

Leonard, in a quick reversal of fortunes, reaching base on a fielder’s choice, making it to third after Justin Lavey is forced out at home plate. He is the player who scores the winning run.

The UofL sophomore quickly chasing down Binelas, smothering him with an embrace that could only best be described as a grizzly bear hug. Leonard forever grateful, no words needed.

The win was UofL’s 47th win of the season, against 16 losses, sending the Cardinals to a Super Regional for the eighth time in the program’s history and sixth in the last seven years.

*   *   *

Left fielder Jake Snider is at his best when when it counts the most — in NCAA post-season play. Snider is 3-for-4 at the plate, including two doubles, and was named the regional’s Most Outstanding Player. 

UofL has seven other players named to the All-Louisville Regional Team: Zeke Pinkham, Justin Lavey, Tyler Fitzgerald, Alex Binelas, Drew Campbell, Danny Oriente and Luke Smith.

A new day for Luke Smith, and UofL is in Regional finale

Luke Smith returned from near obscurity in a must-win game against Illinois State to lead the Cardinals to the Regional Championship game (Photos by Jared Anderson).

It’s a new day for Luke Smith. Waking up Monday morning “feeling brand new, ’cause the dreams he has been dreaming has finally came true.” He keeps going and going on the mound and when the game is over, Louisville has emerged with an 11-2 win over Illinois State in a must-win game.

No doubt about who the man was on the mound in the second game NCAA Regional game on Sunday. None other Luke Smith, taking names, taking charge (Photos by Jared Anderson).

Smith was the last pitcher anyone could have expected going eight and a third innings in what could have been the final game for the University of Louisville baseball team.  Submerged in a hitting slump, the end is painfully near.

Needing someone to lift them up, to cut through the doldrums. A 9-7 win over Indiana in the first game Sunday didn’t hurt, with a crazy ending that got Mike McAvene suspended for four days. A wild and crazy day, two memorable games, setting the stage for a classic finish.

Probably the least imposing person on the roster, Luke Smith had but disappeared from the rotation until a few weeks ago. Came out of hiding in the 11th inning against Indiana on May 15th. Showed some different stuff that night. Handcuffed the Hoosiers, one hit in two innings, big win for him and UofL. His fifth win against no losses.

That brief showing had to have made quite an impression on Coach Dan McDonnell. Trusting him with the immediate future of Louisville baseball. Smith in and out of trouble early against Illinois State, looking lost at times.

Especially in the bottom of the fourth, with two Illinois State runners on first and third. Eyes shifting toward bull pen. Not to worry. Smith is up to the challenge, forcing a fly out to right field, and striking out the final two batters.

The Louisville batters, perhaps desperate with their backs against the wall, more than likely inspired by Luke Smith, would break out en masse in the eighth inning. Posting six more runs, putting the game out of reach. A dream game for Luke Smith, and the 46th win of the season. 

Say goodbye to the lethargy.

Nick Bennett, UofL off and running in NCAA play

Danny Oriente is welcomed home by his teammates after his two-run home run in the second inning in Louisville’s first game of the NCAA Regional at Jim Patterson Stadium. That’s Nick Bennett in the top photo, striking out the side in the third inning (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

Nick Bennett is just fine, thank you, alleviating the concerns of numerous University of Louisville baseball fans going into the opening game of the Louisville Region. He’s had more than his share of shaky starts lately but hanging around this night for a 5-3 win over Illinois-Chicago.

Not a good start, not with the first batter of the game driving the ball out of the park, as did the first batter in the next inning. The visitors with a quick 3-0 lead going into the bottom the second inning.  Bennett and Coach Dan McDonnell hoping the UofL bats would awaken sometime soon.

Thankfully they would in their turn at the plate. Danny Oriente with a towering 405 foot home run over the centerfield wall to push Logan Wyatt across the plate. Zach Britton would draw a walk and score on a UIC error, tying the game at 3-3.

Bennett suddenly impossible to hit, the 6-foot-4 junior striking out the side in the third inning. Tyler Fitzgerald would lead off with a double for Louisville in the third, scoring on an error to give UofL its first lead. He would lead off with another hit in the fifth and later score on a sacrifice for the final margin.

Bennett leaving the game to a standing ovation after two outs in the sixth inning, having given up three runs on four hits, six strikeouts and two bases on balls for the night. All in a night’s work, getting Louisville off to the best possible start in NCAA action.

With a little help, of course, from reliever Michael McAvene, striking out the side in the ninth with UIC runners on second and third. That last pitch 100 miles per hour.