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No. 8 baseball strives to get the bad taste out of their mouth in 2017
By Dalton Ray–
With 50 wins, ACC Atlantic regular season title and the second-overall seed in the NCAA tournament, the 2016 baseball season was one to remember before being cut short by UC Santa Barbara in the NCAA Super Regionals.
Departures followed. Outfielder Corey Ray, catcher Will Smith, third baseman Blake Tiberi and second baseman Nick Solak were drafted in the MLB Draft. First baseman Danny Rosenbaum graduated. The five accounted for 50 of the team’s 64 home runs, 52 percent of RBIs and 48 percent of hits and runs.
On the mound, the Cardinals lost Drew Harrington, Kyle Funkhouser and Zack Burdi. Harrington went 12-2 with a 1.95 ERA, earning him ACC Pitcher of the Year. Funkhouser is U of L’s all-time leader in wins, strikeouts, innings pitched and starts. Burdi was the ace closer, finishing his career with 20 saves and only five home runs in 69 innings.
“You hope there is enough carryover from the last year and enough of a culture built from the previous years,” coach Dan McDonnell said. “I always challenge them and say, ‘You can’t just ride their coattails, at some point you’re at the forefront and have to make your own mark.’
“We’ve got talent. Hopefully, we have the toughest and fortitude to handle when things don’t go our way. When you look at our club the past four years and even the 2007 team, it all starts with toughness. The only time you really know if you have it or not is when the lights are on,” McDonnell said.
Juniors Brendan McKay, Devin Hairston and Kade McClure headline the 2017 team.
McKay is a two-time John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year that went 12-4 as a pitcher and led the team in strikeouts while batting .333 with 41 RBIs and six home runs. Hairston assisted on 38 double plays and led the team in runs with 56 and returns with the highest batting average of .361. McClure went 12-0 last season and only let up one home run in 78 innings pitched.
Seniors Logan Taylor, Colin Lyman and Ryan Summers will take the outfield. The three fielded all 209 balls with no errors. With a group batting average of .279, they’ll need to improve offensively.
Third baseman Drew Ellis, catcher Colby Fitch and second baseman Devin Mann will get their first chance to shine in 2017. Juniors Ellis and Fitch have been in the mix, but spent the majority of the last two seasons sitting behind Tiberi and Smith. Sophomore Mann, an All-ACC Freshman select, saw action in 39 games but surrendered starting duties to Solak.
McDonnell expects the bullpen to be a strength of the team again this season with the help of pitching coach Roger Williams.
“If you’re a top program, you have good starters and you’re known for great closers. When you look at coach Williams’ resume, he has a heavy list of both,” McDonnell said.
“What goes unrecognized is the relief pitchers and the younger arms. With these young guys, you want to give them time and coach Williams will put them in the right spot. You have to decide when to ride the hot hand and when to make them a starter, and that’s where coach Williams does a great job. Because of that, we feel like we can be one of top pitching staffs in the country.”
Due to the loss of vital parts of the lineup, unknown names get their first chance to become acknowledged. Four position players to keep an eye out for are freshmen Logan Wyatt, Jake Snyder, Danny Oriente and Tyler Fitzgerald.
On the pitching side, the Cardinals added nine freshmen. A redshirt freshman that has garnered a lot of attention is Riley Thompson, a 6-foot-3 right-handed pitcher from Christian Academy of Louisville.
“He has an electric, power arm that the fans will love. Right now, we just want to give him some innings,” McDonnell said on Thompson.
Ranked eighth, Louisville is one of eight ranked ACC teams in the top 20. Aside from conference play, Louisville has match-ups with No. 7 Vanderbilt and No. 22 Maryland and faces rivals Kentucky and Indiana. Despite having such a tough schedule, McDonnell doesn’t point out games, but parts of the season.
“I’ve learned from college baseball that there is so much parity. There’s such a fine line between winning and losing. To win early in the season, you need to throw strikes, you have to make routine plays and compete offensively. In the postseason, you have to do those three and get timely hits,” McDonnell said. “By conference play, you need to know who can handle this level, things need to become concrete. I’ve learned before that the guys you start season with aren’t always the ones around in conference play.”
Even though Louisville past two seasons have ended in heartbreaking fashion, McDonnell said no one has sympathy for Louisville.
“It’s a new year with new players and some returners for us. You have to hit the reset button. No one feels sorry for us. We were one of the last 16 teams standing and have been for the last four years. We don’t want to take things for granted but unless you win the national championship, you’re going to have a chip on your shoulder,” McDonnell said.
File photo / The Louisville Cardinal