By Derek Brightwell–
In years past, Louisville’s success has been predicated on the strength of its pitching. As 2015 comes into fruition, nothing has changed.
Led by juniors Kyle Funkhouser and Anthony Kidston, Louisville’s pitching staff will be the strength of their 2015 season.
In a typical weekend series, Funkhouser will be the Friday starter and tone-setter for the weekend. Kidston, a captain, will be the starter on Saturday. Sophomores Josh Rogers and Drew Harrington round out the rotation. Coach Dan McDonnell will look to Harrington to also contribute in relief efforts during the weekend series.
“I think Harrington is what I call an X-Factor. You’re talking about a power left handed arm with experience,” McDonnell said of the sophomore. “A tough kid with an opportunity to help us win not just one game during the week but maybe two or even three depending on how we use him.”
Funkhouser is coming off one of the best pitching seasons at the University of Louisville. His 13-3 record was the most wins in a single season a pitcher has ever had for the school. His 122 strikeouts ranked third most in school history and his 120.1 innings pitched placed him second all-time at U of L. He also posted a 1.94 earned run average and was invited to play with the USA National Collegiate Team in the summer.
While “Funk” is the most decorated pitcher of the staff, receiving multiple pre-season All-American honors, the rest of the staff is just as capable of putting up big numbers.
Kidston is entering the year with a career record of 14-1 in his two years with the Cardinals. His ERA is 2.60, and he had 127 strikeouts. In his freshman season, Josh Rogers posted a 3.63 ERA and had a 3-3 record with 47 strikeouts. He also played a key role in the post-season, with back-to-back quality starts to close out the year.
“It’s nice getting your three starters who started the regionals back. That was big for us,” Funkhouser said of the starting rotation. “Moving forward from last year to this year, we thought we’d all be in similar roles, all on the weekend. So we feel really confident.”
Of course, the starters aren’t the only key players on the pitching staff. A deep bullpen will take pressure off the starting arms.
“You need young arms to step up. Last year, we had five freshmen contribute on the mound,” McDonnell said of the depth of the staff. “We’re expecting Lincoln Henzman, Brendon McKay and Kade McClure – three freshmen – they’re going to have to step up and pitch big innings for us this year.”
“To get to Omaha, in 2012 it’s Kyle Funkhouser running out of the bullpen against Vanderbilt, and in 2013, it’s Nick Burdi running out against Kennesaw State,” Kidston said of the importance of the bullpen. “Obviously we have good guys on paper, but I think it’s the freshmen, the younger guys who have shown the ability to step up. And to make a tournament run, that’s the most important thing.
“At the beginning of the season you’re not really sure, but halfway through, you get your roles set up. That’s where I think we’ll shine this year,” he added.
Despite losing star closer Nick Burdi to the Minnesota Twins in the second round of the MLB Draft, the Cards can look to another Burdi, Zack, to shut the door this year.
“Zack Burdi has emerged as the leader to close games,” McDonnell said. “He’s not the only guy capable of closing games but clearly with the talent and the stuff he has, he’s going to have an opportunity to be the closer and we feel really good about flipping the ball to a guy with mid-to-upper-90s stuff and an electric breaking ball.”
Another pitcher who has the ability to provide a spark out of the bullpen is sophomore Robert Strader.
“My other X-Factor is Robert Strader. If Robert Strader runs out to the mound, you’re going to see a lot of scouts behind home plate,” McDonnell said. “That’s a big, six-foot-five left-hander that throws hard. Just hasn’t put it together yet, but it’s in there, and we’re all hoping this is the year he busts out.”
The pitching staff could breathe a sigh of relief as pitching coach Roger Williams returned to the team for his ninth season amidst staff turnover. Williams’ impact on the pitchers cannot be understated; neither can his relationship with McDonnell.
“It’s very comforting for me because I know Roger is going to get the most out of these guys,” McDonnell said. Williams has been McDonnell’s pitching coach throughout his entire tenure at Louisville.
“I can’t even put it into words. That guy’s basically like a second father to me. The relationship he has with his players, I can’t even describe it,” Kidston said of his pitching coach.
“We work with him everyday. It’s hard to put it into words, because I don’t know if I’d be here without him,” Funkhouser added. “Coming in, I obviously knew I was going to be a pitcher, so you’ve got to develop a relationship with the pitching coach, and we’ve done that so far. It’s hard to put it into words.”
Entering the ACC, the Cards will pit their pitching staff against some of the best in the country. The Cards have had the Conference Pitcher of the Year five times in McDonnell’s eight-year tenure. However, despite having one of the best pitchers in the nation in Funkhouser and a talented staff top to bottom, McDonnell isn’t looking to add a sixth Conference Pitcher of the Year to his résumé.
“At the end of the year, those awards are nice, but I definitely think they’re going to be tougher being in the ACC for those individual awards.”
Despite the challenges, the Cards pitching staff is excited about the new conference.
““I like going to away places and pitching in front of big crowds and letting them heckle you a little bit. It gets you going a little bit,” Kidston said.
In light of the tough competition they will face, if history has shown anything, the Cardinals pitching staff is ready to rise to the occasion.
Photo by Austin Lassell / The Louisville Cardinal