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.

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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.

 

NCAA overlooks UofL baseball’s early exit from ACC tourney

Coach Dan McDonnell with media reps at Monday’s press conference in the Omaha Room at Jim Patterson Stadium (Photo by Ed Peak).

By Ed Peak

The University of Louisville had four days to rid itself of a flat performance in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. Monday’s announcement of the Cardinals as the No. 7 national seed in the NCAA baseball tournament provided still more relief.

UofL (43-15) will play Illinois Chicago (29-21) in an opening round game Friday, 6 p.m. at Jim Patterson Stadium. Indiana (36-21) will play Illinois State (34-24) at 2 p.m.

The Cardinals must thank their lucky stars the selection committee took into account the entire season or body of work. Several factors helped the Cardinals get a national seed, including a tough non conference schedule and the fact that eight ACC teams made the field.

The Cards have non conference wins over NCAA invitees Mississippi, Indiana and Cincinnati. Duke and North Carolina State were sweeps in the ACC and two of three series wins over Miami and Florida State. A loss to Vanderbilt, the No. 2 overall in the tournament didn’t hurt their RPI.
Also helpful was Louisville’s recent success in NCAA play.

“I tried to tell them don’t get caught up in the national seed. That’s for the second round,” said coach Dan McDonnell. “You just have to focus on the first round. I think it’s one of the greatest accomplishments in college baseball to be selected to host a regional.

“I congratulated them. Now let’s play good baseball and let’s see who we’re matched up with Friday night. Anything past that your wasting energy and your wasting time. Let’s focus on what we can control and that’s who we play Friday night.”