The University of Louisville baseball team has proven it can get to Omaha. The Cardinals will head to the College World Series for the fifth time overall and the fourth time in seven years when they face No. 2-ranked Vanderbilt in the CWS Opener in TD Ameritrade Park this weekend.
What the Cardinals want to do now is win in Omaha. In five trips, their record is 2-8.
“Hopefully I’m better prepared,” Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. “My job is to get these guys better prepared. You’re supposed to celebrate and dog pile, it’s not easy and I want them to do that. But we want to play better in Omaha. We haven’t played as well as we’re capable of, so the goal is to play good baseball.”
Louisville takes momentum into the event. They pounded a good East Carolina team for 26 runs in two days, while limiting the Pirates to just one run on eight hits.
In all phases, they’re playing probably as well as they have been all season. They have balance, depth on the pitching staff, and a style that lends itself to the oversized dimensions of TD Ameritrade Ballpark.
Could it be as balanced a team as McDonnell has taken to Omaha?
“I’d like to think that, but you’ve just got to play good baseball,” he said. “You’ve got to get quality starts, make routine plays and get timely hits. . . . I’ve learned my lesson and made statements before, getting beat bad by a team in the regional or super regional and saying, ‘Looks like they’re going to go win it.’ But it’s a whole new tournament. It’s like the ACC Tournament (Louisville suffered two quick loses and went home, only to make it to the CWS). This is a crazy game. It’s not the bigger, stronger, faster team or the most talented team or the team with the most draft picks, it’s who plays the best together.”
East Carolina coach Cliff Godwin gives the Cards a fighting chance in Omaha, after they became the first-ever ECU opponent ever to beat the Pirates by 10 runs or more in back to back games.
“Yes, absolutely,” Godwin said when asked if the Cards could win it all. “Look, they’ve got a real ace in (pitcher Reid) Detmers. He is a real ace. He’s the best pitcher we’ve seen all season. (Bobby) Miller was very good today, but Detmers, I’m sure he’ll be a very high draft pick next year, and so will Miller, but Miller hasn’t been as consistent. Everybody says they want to be the Friday night ace until they have to run out there Friday night and they have to make every single pitch. And every pitch determines the difference between winning and losing the game, that’s pressure. And Detmers has done that all year. They can mix and match you and they have a closer who will be back for the College World Series.”
Vanderbilt and Louisville have a postseason history. They met in the 2013 Nashville Super Regional and in the 2014 College World Series. Each time, the team that won had lost in the regular-season meeting between the programs. Vanderbilt beat Louisville 6-2 in Jim Patterson Stadium on May 7 this season.
In all, the programs are 4-4 in postseason play. Vanderbilt enters the College World Series as the top-ranked team still remaining, at No. 2 in the nation and No. 1 in the RPI. Louisville is No. 8 in the RPI.
Louisville athletics director Vince Tyra is more than just a casual observer. He played college baseball, and has been a fan of Louisville baseball for a long time.
“We’ve had great teams go there before, but I think this one is really balanced, from pitching hitting and defense,” Tyra said. “They played really well the last few games of the regional and then these two in the super. I know they’re playing with a lot of confidence. Matchups are everything, as they always are, but I’m sure they’re going in feeling unbeatable.”
McDonnell, of course, knows there’s no such thing as unbeatable. And Louisville’s bracket will be difficult. In addition to Vanderbilt, Louisville will have Mississippi State (RPI No. 3) and either Auburn (11) or North Carolina (12).
In the other four-team bracket, it’ll be No. 6 Arkansas or No. 15 Ole Miss, No. 9 Texas Tech, No. 26 Michigan and No. 33 Florida State.
McDonnell said his players have high expectations of themselves.
“These teams like the challenge of trying to be the greatest team to ever play here, and that’s not easy,” he said. “Talk about setting the bar high. This team hasn’t done it yet, but it’s something they throw around a lot. . . . We’ve just got to get back to the drawing board and get ready to play good baseball.”
Regardless, Louisville heads to Omaha with good feelings. And it’s not unlike the turn of events after losing to Arizona in the Tucson Regional in 2012. The program roared back with back-to-back trips to the College World Series.
“This reminded me of 2012, we went to Arizona and they handed it to us, and I remember telling (former baseball SID) Garrett Wall when we left the press conference at Texas Tech (after losing in last season’s regional), I said, ‘Man, this feels like Arizona,’” McDonnell said. “And after Arizona we made a serious run, about five years. I’m not making any promises for the next five years, but here we are 12 months later and we’re going back to Omaha.”
Going back, and hoping to accomplish more.