By Noah Allison–
Louisville Cardinal baseball fans get their first glimpse of two impressive sights on Wednesday, Feb. 20. The first is the newly furbished Jim Patterson Stadium that has been renovated with 4,000 total seats to pack Card Nation, making it one of the 30 largest college baseball stadiums in the country. The other is obviously the first true look at the highest preseason ranked baseball team in school history starting the season at No. 4. The Cardinals host Eastern Kentucky at 3 p.m. in their home opener.
Fresh off of competing in the Big East/Big Ten Challenge in Florida, the Cards come home to play the inner state rival Colonels. It’s a game that will pin 24 native Kentuckians against each other with 12 on each team, and seven Louisvillians against each other with two on EKU and five on U of L. But the past lives of the players won’t determine the outcome on the diamond; the play will. And there is just no getting around the fact the Louisville not only fields one of the most talented teams in the Big East, but also one of the most talented teams in the country.
The Cardinals field seven All-Big East players from last season, with a deep pitching staff, batting rotation, in-field and out-field. The fans, university and players know that this is a team that has the opportunity to achieve something special.
“Their expectations are high and they want to do something really special this year. And it’s fun to coach a group like that, but the reality is we are not going to win a national championship here in February,” head coach Dan McDonnell said. “We are going to take it one day at a time and lets see what this team is all about in the first ten or fifteen games and make some adjustments there.”
In order for a team to be a legitimate contender, it can’t simply have talent on the surface, especially in baseball. It needs a team that has players at multiple positions that can get the job done, and the next man up has to be ready to handle the responsibilities given to him. There is no such thing as having too much talent, but having able-bodied performers at every position makes Coach McDonnell’s job a bit more difficult when it comes to choosing the line-ups and keeping everybody happy.
“The competition on the team has been very healthy; we’ve got six outfielders that are all competing to play, and we have several guys on the infield, so it’s tricky. That’s the thing about the college baseball season — it’s challenging getting those guys at-bats, getting them reps and seeing them perform,” McDonnell said.
Arguably the most important factor in winning baseball games is pitching, and the Cardinals are led out onto the mound by six-foot-four right-handed pitcher, junior Chad Green, who posted a 5-0 record last year. Green isn’t the starter simply because he is the best pitcher on the staff; that is up for debate considering the wealth of talent Louisville has at pitching. Rather, he is the starter because his veteran and professional approach has earned him the coaches’ respect.
“We have three starters that could pitch on any day of the week,” Green said. “It’s an honor to be the starter, but I think it could change throughout the year based on who’s pitching well at that time. I think it’s just that we have a deep staff and we have multiple guys that could start on Friday, Saturday or Sunday.”
Green is accompanied by junior right-handed pitcher Jeff Thompson, who earned All-Big East honors last year, and sophomore right-handed pitcher Jared Ruxer, who was a Freshman All-American and won Big East Rookie of the Year last year.
“There’s an obvious amount of talent when you talk about our weekend rotation of Green, Thompson and Ruxer,” McDonnell said. “But to be a great pitching staff, you are going to have to get quality starts, but right now I think one of the most valuable pitchers on our staff is Dace Kime. He’s good enough to start, he’s proven that he can start, but we feel like early in the season we are going to use him in many roles. To have a great pitching staff you have to have those guys that you can flip them the ball in some crucial situations. And Dace knows that last year we gave him the ball with bases loaded and nobody out multiple times. As a coach you feel good about a guy that’s experienced and super talented like Dace who’s going to be able to handle that role.”
The Cardinals aren’t only talented on the mound. Their power hitting game and infield and outfield defense round them off at being one of the most complete teams in the country.
“If we are going to be a great team, we are going to have to defend. We were able to cover it up for a few years because we hit so many home runs and we pitched so well that we got away with being an average defensive team. The way the game is now, you are only going to go as far as your pitching and defense will let you,” McDonnell said.
The team is a conventional national championship contender, but they also have the x factor that a team needs in order to make something special happen. That x factor may just be junior Adam Engel. Last year, the outfielder had 37 stolen bases on 39 attempts. McDonnell has described him as the baseball equivalent of Russ Smith, because when he gets on base he only has one thing in mind: scoring.
“There are two categories that make offensive players really special; we all understand the home run. It’s on TV every night. The home runs are the highlights because the guy can hit the ball and jog around the bases and nobody has to help him get to home plate. But the guy that can steal bases is as close to that as anybody else; when he gets on base, he can steal second, and he can steal third, so now all you really need is another ground ball or another fly ball. You don’t really need a hit to score that run, so he becomes very valuable to your offense. When Adam is on base he just wants to run, run, run, the whole time,” McDonnell said.
There are too many players that will play a major factor in the team’s success this year to be able to preview them all in one story. This year’s team has the depth for any player to be “the guy,” but when it comes down to it, no one player will make all the difference.
“This is a tight-knit group; I’m not afraid to say it, these guys love each other,” McDonnell said. “I feel that connection. There is a real respect and love for each other on this team, and hopefully that’s going to help us through those tough times, and it should help us hopefully come the end of the season.”
Photo by Noah Allison/The Louisville Cardinal