February 11, 2019

Failing as fuel: All signs point to Omaha for baseball

By Matt Bradshaw —

Across the past 12 years, Louisville baseball has earned a ticket to the College World Series four times. Last year ended a five-season streak of Super Regional appearances as the Cardinals fell short in the Regional Championship.

No matter the finish, 2018 ended a solid season. U of L topped 14 games to open the year, the only team to do so in the nation, and registered their seventh consecutive 40-win stint.

“The ending to our season last year was rough,” junior Logan Wyatt said. “Going into this season, everybody’s intensity and focus seems to be heightened.”

Expectations are always high for Dan McDonnell and his Cards. In his 13th season as head coach, history serves McDonnell a reminder that failing is often the swiftest path to renewed success.

“We felt it was a lot like 2012,” McDonnell said, referring to the 2018 regional loss. “The last time we didn’t make the Super Regional was 2012. After that, we went on a five-year run of Super Regionals. That’s what you hope. You hope that taste in the mouth makes you get better.”

Louisville got better after 2012 and then some. Their five-year run of Super Regionals featured trips to the College World Series in 2013, 2014 and 2017.

The 2018 team featured a young group of guys, undoubtedly talented, but lacking a strong selection of veterans and consistency. With a losing taste in the mouth and hardened upperclassmen alongside skilled newcomers, McDonnell is confident as ever for 2019.

“We came off a good summer. We have a lot of talented players returning. We can’t be afraid to put it out there,” McDonnell said on media day. “There’s power in saying that we’re going to win a national championship. Today’s the day to let the world know that’s the goal of our program.”

The 2019 team is ranked in the top 10 of most polls, selected to win the ACC and ready to follow through with preseason predictions.

“Coming to Louisville, you know what to expect,” junior Tyler Fitzgerald said. “To us, legacy means coming out and bringing it every day. We want to make it to Omaha.”

McDonnell has five seniors for the upcoming season: Gabe Burchell, Pat Rumoro, Zeke Pinkham, J. D. Mundt and Bryan Hoeing.

“Consistency is a staple,” McDonnell said. “That’s one of our big words. Young players don’t know what it’s like to be inconsistent, because they’ve never really struggled. Older players go through those moments.”

Hoeing, a righty returning a 2.88 ERA from 2018, is one of four key pitchers that will headline Louisville’s rotation. Sophomores Reid Detmers and Bobby Miller, along with preseason All-American standout Nick Bennett, complete the rotation with a combined 18 wins from last season.

Eleven pitchers return overall from the 2018 team that reached a regional final.

With the loss of only two starters in Devin Mann and Josh Stowers, the rest of the field is secure with talent. First baseman Wyatt had a stellar sophomore season, leading the offense with a .339 batting average and a .490 on-base percentage.

“Position player wise, I feel really good about our depth,” McDonnell said. “I feel good about our older guys, trusting they know how to play the game.”

Shortstop Fitzgerald is the leadoff man in the lineup and posted the most runs scored out all of returning players from 2018. Junior Jake Snider, who started all games last season infield or outfield, follows in the two-hole with the most steals (24) out of returners. Third baseman Justin Lavey stacks the infield as another junior.

Several players will vie for playing time in the outfield. Three are juniors Drew Campbell, Ethan Stringer and Danny Oriente.

Campbell is one of five returners who hit over .300 in 2018. Oriente, who also spent significant time starting as designated hitter, hit a solid .331 with a .403 on-base percentage.

Sophomores Lucas Dunn and Zach Britton also have a chance for playing time in the outfield or infield, in addition to 13 incoming freshman that form one of the top recruiting classes in the nation.

“Britton is a dual guy. He’s coming off an injury, but you have to get his bat in the lineup,” McDonnell said. “Dunn has had the upper hand in the infield. He’s a versatile guy.”

Louisville’s 2019 schedule is no cakewalk, featuring 19 games against NCAA Championship qualifiers from last season. Conference play is more of the same with six ACC teams, including the Cards, ranked in the preseason top 25.

“There’s 30 ACC games, so we’re not getting around that. That’s a huge challenge,” McDonnell said. “Then you add a top 20 team like UConn, cross-state rivals like Indiana and Cincinnati. I get excited about them.”

Luckily enough for baseball fans, half of Louisville’s 34 home games will be free to attend in 2019. This is a change from last year, which saw ticketed admission to matchups at Jim Patterson Stadium.

U of L opens the season on Friday, Feb. 15 against No. 20 Connecticut in Florida. The Cardinals begin a 14-game home stand with their home opener on Wednesday, Feb. 20 against Eastern Kentucky.

On media day, McDonnell advocated letting fans know about the three-week stretch of home games.

“People in Louisville know I like to grocery shop,” McDonnell said. “I bump into them at the store. I don’t want them to ask ‘When’s the season start, coach?’. That’s the reason I’m trying to promote it. Come see us play.”

Graphic by Shayla Kerr / The Louisville Cardinal

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