Being a diehard Louisville baseball fan isn't exactly the easiest task in the world. Not only does the sport begin at a time (February) when Cardinal basketball hysteria is at its peak, but the first half of the season takes place during a period of time that few sports fans ever associate with baseball.
This being the case, the average U of L fanatic keeps a casual eye on the Cardinal Nine in February and March, and then really starts to get to know their team once the basketball madness has died down. Another chunk of folks will start to pay attention only when the postseason rolls around. And then, of course, there is another contingent of fans who just don't care for the game of baseball and have a hard time getting into the whole thing at all.
If you fall into one of the latter groups and have been wary about hopping on the Cardinal baseball bandwagon, I'm here to tell you that it's still Ok to become a diehard this late in the game. There's plenty of room for you, and you should probably hop on now because there's a pretty large fact floating around right now that's impossible to gloss over casually: this Louisville baseball team is good enough to win a national championship. Love the sport or loathe the sport, the preceding statement should be enough to at least catch your eye, if not your head and heart, for this weekend and beyond.
If the Cardinals are dogpiling again in 10 or 11 days, you're going to want to be able to (truthfully) say that you've been there for the Omaha journey. And if you need a little nudge to get that journey started, I'm here to help.
Here are five things you should know about this Louisville baseball team before they begin their quest for a national championship tomorrow.
1. They have the pitching to win the whole thing
The 2007 Cardinals were a group with some solid starting pitching and an explosive offense. This team is pretty much the exact opposite; they have enough good bats to win the whole thing, but they're carried by their starting pitching and their defense.
Louisville has dominated the league pitching awards and honors since joining the Big East, but a lot of that can be credited to the fact that the conference hasn't been very strong. This year, the accolades are justified.
The fact that the Cards just swept the No. 2 team in the country without the benefit of an extra base hit in either game should tell you all you need to know. But just in case you wanted to know a little more...
Headlining the staff is Big East Pitcher of the Year Jeff Thompson (11-1, 2.00 ERA), an All-American who was recently drafted by the Tigers in the third round of the MLB Draft. The Floyd Central product has made incredible strides in his junior season, and has added onto the reputation pitching coach Roger Williams has for developing tall hurlers. Thompson is a power pitcher who has struck out 109 batters and walked only 33 this season. In 103 1/3 innings, opposing batters have just 60 hits and are batting just .169 against the 6'6, 248-pounder. You'll see him on the bump on Monday.
The starter tomorrow against Indiana will be junior righty Chad Green (10-3, 2.29 ERA), who has been U of L's No. 1 all season. Green, who was also drafted by the Tigers (in round 11) last week, has been a little shaky in his last three starts, but is Dan McDonnell's most experienced and reliable arm. He was on the mound against Indiana in the first game of the season and took the loss, allowing seven hits and two runs over four innings.
It says something about the U of L staff that the Cardinal who was drafted first is actually the team's No. 3 starter. That would be Dace Kime (6-1, 3.07 ERA), who was taken by the Cleveland Indians with the 79th overall pick in the draft. The hard-throwing junior righty entered the starting rotation midseason and had a three-start stretch from April 30-May 12 where he had a 0.96 ERA over 18.2 innings (3-0, 2ER, 25K). Don't be surprised if he's called on for some short relief work on Saturday.
Where this staff truly sets itself apart from former Cardinal teams is the bullpen, which is easily the deepest Dan McDonnell has had at his disposal. Headlining the group is closer Nick Burdi (3-3, 0.78 ERA, 16 saves), who routinely hits triple digits with his fastball. Kyle Funkhouser, Cody Ege, Anthony Kidston, Kyle McGrath and Joe Filomeno are also guys with elite stuff who could all be called upon to play key roles in the coming week.
2. They're as aggressive as you'd expect a Dan McDonnell team
If you fall under the "baseball is boring" umbrella, then be glad you're a Louisville fan, because the Cardinals play about as exciting a brand of baseball as you're going to find at the college level. U of L swings often, gets on base often and steals often.
For the season, Louisville ranks second in the country in stolen bases with 150. Speedy center fielder Adam Engel leads the group with 41 swipes, good for third nationally. If he returns to school for his senior season (he was taken by the White Sox in the 19th round) he will almost certainly break Boomer Whiting's school record for career steals.
Of course you have to get on base to swipe bases, and the Cards are again among the best in the country at doing that. U of L hitters have been hit by pitches 128 times this season, more than any other team in Division-I. And it's not just the guys at the bottom and top of the order taking one (or 50) for the team. Cleanup hitter Coco Johnson leads the team with 23 worn badges.
3. They're a man down
Word started to get around in the middle of last week that senior second baseman Nick Ratajczak had badly injured his shoulder in practice and would likely miss the rest of the season. Surprisingly, Ratajczak was in uniform and made his 125th consecutive start when the Cards opened their series against Vanderbilt last Saturday. After one at-bat, however, it was clear that him continuing to play would only hurt the team.
Though the smart money is on Ratajczak not seeing the field again as a Cardinal, he says there's a chance that he could suit up this week...but only if he thinks it won't hurt his team.
"I don't want to push it too much," he said Wednesday. "(But) I'm pretty confident. I'm definitely planning on this weekend being really good.
"I'm all about the team. I tell myself to be as unselfish as you can. It's all about these guys, and winning. I look back on that Saturday game. If I had tried to gut it out through that whole game, instead of Matt Helms getting that big hit, would I have done that or would I have popped out, struck out or got out? It's amazing how it worked."
McDonnell has called Ratajczak "the face" of Louisville baseball because of his selflessness and grit, but after seeing the amount of pain he was in last Saturday, it's hard to imagine him being that much healthier just a week later.
If Ratajczak isn't able to go, then his replacement at the four spot will be sophomore Zach Lucas. Lucas actually started (and typically batted third) 43 games at shortstop as a freshman in 2012, but was beaten out by Sutton Whiting for the job this season. He hit .259 last season and is hitting .283 in his diminished role (10 starts, 27 appearances) this year.
Even though losing Ratajczak is a big blow both on the field and emotionally, it has to be comforting for McDonnell to know that he has a player as talented and as experienced as Lucas to throw into the proverbial fire.
4. The team needs Ty Young to get going
This team doesn't have the same level of pop that the 2007 or 2010 teams did (some of that can be attributed to the change in the bats), but there's still solid home run potential in the heart of the order with Ty Young, Coco Johnson and Jeff Gardner.
Johnson has been on a tear in the NCAA Tournament and Gardner has showcased his power consistently late in the season, but Young is in a slump that his teammates desperately need him to break out of. The three-hole hitter has just three hits in 20 postseason at-bats (.150 avg), which is especially troublesome since he's second on the team with 26 stolen bases. Young, whose swing is sweeter than a crisp early May morning in Louisville, is known as one of the most well-rounded players in college baseball, which is why he was drafted by the Rays in the seventh round of last week's MLB Draft.
There are always going to be unheralded players who rise to the occasion, but typically stars have to be stars in order for a team to win a championship. Louisville needs Ty Young to be the star he is this week.
5. Aaron Gershenfeld is a Vine sensation
The energy and fire that the team plays with makes them extremely enjoyable to watch when they're on the field, but they're also a fun group to follow off it (creepy). Headlining that group is junior catcher Aaron Gershenfeld, who likely won't see the field in Omaha, but will more than make up for it with his Vine prowess.
His latest submission is a video of TD Ameritrade Park before the madness begins, but there's a solid amount of pure comedy that's worth checking out in his archives. Guys like Jeff Gardner, Kyle McGrath and Coco Johnson are also highly entertaining social media follows.
Like every team we've lived and died with this season, this Cardinal group is a pretty easy one to root for.