By Sam Draut–
The U of L baseball team was outs away from its third-consecutive appearance in the College World Series in 2015, but fell to Cal State Fullerton in the final game of the Super Regional after setting an ACC record for most league wins in a season. A majority of the team that went 47-18 last season returns to face lofty expectations in 2016. Louisville is ranked second in six preseason national polls and players have said the ultimate goal is a national championship.
“We begin with the end in mind,” head coach Dan McDonnell said. “The ultimate goal is to win a national championship.”
After reaching its third straight NCAA Super Regional in 2015, Louisville returns more than 75-percent of its pitching staff and seven positional players who made at least 30 starts last season. The biggest, and possibly most surprising returner was All-American pitcher Kyle Funkhouser. The 6-foot-3 right-hander was selected in the first round of the 2015 MLB Draft, but turned down $2 million offered by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Funkhouser went 8-5 with a 3.20 ERA last season and ranks second in career wins at Louisville.
“I’m really excited to be back wearing the black and red,” Funkhouser said.
Players were thrilled to have Funkhouser return, which kept in tact Louisville’s top two starting pitchers. Brendan McKay will follow Funkhouser’s Friday starts on Saturdays as a part of McDonnell’s rotation. McKay, who also plays first base was named a preseason All-American. The sophomore was 9-3 with a 1.77 ERA last season. He also started 58 games as a hitter, batting .308 with four home runs and 34 RBI. McKay was selected as the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year by College Baseball Hall of Fame and earned Freshman of the Year honors.
McDonnell said he will use McKay as a designated-hitter instead of playing him at first base to save his legs at some points during the year. Whether he play first base, DH or pitch, McKay’s role will expand in his second season.
“You go in with the mentality that I’m going to give it my all every time out,” McKay said.
Drew Harrington will be the Cardinals third starting pitcher for weekend series. The 6-foot-2 junior had 17 relief appearances last season and had a 0.29 ERA in 31 innings.
The backend of Louisville’s bullpen is led by closer Zack Burdi. The junior had nine saves and a 0.92 ERA and earned All-American honors in 2015. With the ability to dial up his fastball to triple digits, the hard throwing 6-foot-3 right-hander was named a team captain for the 2016 season.
“We have a lot of leadership on this team,” Burdi said. “Everyone knows how to prepare.”
Offensively, the Cardinals top three hitters from a year ago. Along with McKay, Corey Ray and Nick Solak bolster the top half the Louisville lineup. Though Ray is the most powerful bat in the lineup; he hit 11 home runs last season, McDonnell plans to bat the junior outfielder at the leadoff spot this season.
“He went from being a 5-6 hole hitter playing a little bit as a freshman to a three-hole hitter and an All-American,” McDonnell said. “I call it the high school philosophy, put your best player up first. That might hurt the feelings of the other eight guys in the lineup, but they know Corey’s a superstar.”
Part of McDonnell’s reasoning to bat Ray leadoff is to better utilize his speed. Ray stole 34 bases last season.
“He’s a dynamic base stealer. It would be nice to have him get on base with no outs sometimes, where you don’t have to run first-pitch, can pick the right spot to run,” McDonnell said.
Solak will replace Ray in the three-hole after batting .324 and driving in 40 runs last season. The junior infielder was named by players and coaches as team captain.
Louisville’s bevy of talented pitchers and potent lineup draw much of the attention, but McDonnell believes his team has improved defensively as well. Catcher Will Smith is a dependable backstop with 68 career starts and centerfielder Logan Taylor can cover ground in the outfielder.
“Pitching and the offense gets a lot of attention, but to win a national title you have to be great defensively,” McDonnell said.
The reigning ACC Atlantic Division winners announced their presence in their inaugural season in the conference, but the success hasn’t changed the mindset of McDonnell’s team. He doesn’t think Louisville has a target on its back because of other formidable ACC programs like Florida State, Virginia, North Carolina and Miami.
“We have to be the hunter, we have to play with a chip on our shoulder,” McDonnell said.
With 15 juniors and seniors on the 35-man roster, Louisville’s experienced group is faced with expectations and one lofty goal: to end the season with a win at Omaha.
“From the inside out, we have everything we need to accomplish our goal,” Burdi said.