Suddenly Kentucky followers are diehard baseball fans

The already caustic rivalry between the universities of Louisville and Kentucky will become more vitriolic after this week’s NCAA Super Regional baseball competition. One season ending, another pursuing glory.

Bitter, as in bitter, end for the loser. 

UK is a newcomer to Super Regional competition, having never won a Regional tournament in the program’s 100-year history. The Lexington school is a surprise, having compiled a 43-21 record overall and a 19-11 mark in the Southeastern Conference in Coach Nick Mingione’s first season.

Whether that winds up being the proverbial flash in the pan or long-term success remains to be seen. But suddenly the basketball-centric UK followers consider themselves diehard baseball fans.

UofL, meanwhile, will be participating in its fifth consecutive Super Regional and its seventh during Coach Dan McDonnell’s 11th season. The Cardinals also have won six of the last seven games against the Wildcats over the last four seasons. UofL is 50-10 this season.

Lots of complaints from UK fans after it was announced the Super Regional was a sellout less than 24 hours after UofL won the Regional against Xavier.  Some Kentucky fans arguing that it was unfair for Louisville to sell out the event before they had qualified. Others suggesting that the games should be moved to Louisville Slugger Field.

Sorry, Cat fans, neither argument is valid. UofL earned the right to host the Super Regional during the regular season. A national seed is supposed to mean something. That includes the home field advantage and everything that goes along with playing at Jim Patterson Stadium. 

Given the success of the UofL baseball program over the past decade, long-time observers of the rivalry are not surprised that Kentucky has been investing heavily in baseball. The Wildcats will begin play in a new $49 million 2,500-seat stadium, starting the 2018 season.

Welcome to the world of college baseball, Wildcat fans. We were wondering how long it would take for them to stop pretending they hadn’t noticed UofL’s success in baseball.

Expect some fireworks this week, on and off the field.

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.

UofL baseball celebrates as Ray, Burdi, Smith and Solak are drafted

There is some early celebrating going on at the University of Louisville baseball complex, with Corey Ray being picked No. 5 Thursday in the Major League Baseball draft.

The junior outfielder is currently batting .319 with 16 doubles and 15 home runs. He is selected by the Milwaukee Brewers to the sound of cheers from his teammates watching the draft on a flat screen in the Omaha Room.

Zack Burdi
Zack Burdi

About a half an hour later, more cheers as Zack Burdi’s name is called. The ace reliever, with 13 saves, is picked by Chicago White Sox as the 26th pick in the draft.

Shortly afterwards, more whooping as catcher Will Smith is drafted by the Los Angeles. Currently batting .380, he was the 32nd pick.

Last UofL pick of the night another biggie, Nick Solak being selected by the New York Yankees. The junior second baseman, leading the team in hitting with a .380 average, was the 62nd pick.

“As a team, we have learned to enjoy the success of our teammates,” said Coach Dan McDonnell during a press conference earlier in the day. “Being able to enjoy the success of others on our team is a huge quality component we have in our program. Enjoying the success of your teammates makes you a better player.”

McDonnell said enjoying the success of others does not always come naturally. “This is a great time for the players who get drafted tonight or over the weekend. You want to enjoy the success of our best friends, the people we spend a lot of time with.

“These are the guys who helped them get there because of the work ethic, the talent and the competition. We’re going to celebrate for them in the draft, then we’re going to pull for each other like crazy in the Super Regional.”