Louisville's persistent conference-hopping over the past four decades or so has made finding steady rivals outside of the University of Kentucky a bit of a chore.
Most debates surrounding the topic of U of L's secondary rival(s) will settle on longtime conference companion Cincinnati, Memphis, Marquette basketball or a more recent Big East cohort like Syracuse. The basis for these rivalries centers around the heightened importance given to football and men's basketball...or in Marquette's case, just men's basketball.
When it comes to America's third major sport, however, no flame of contention has burned brighter in recent years for Louisville than the one between it and Vanderbilt. The latest chapter in the book co-authored by these two regional powers will be written this weekend when the Cardinals and Commodores battle it out in Nashville for a trip to the College World Series.
When looking at the U of L/Vandy series historically, it might seem like the word "rivalry" might be misplaced here.
The Commodores lead the all-time series 22-4 and are 13-0 against Louisville in games played in Nashville. The 'Dores have been dominant even during the Dan McDonnell era, which is easily the most successful in U of L's history. Since McDonnell took over the program in 2007, the Cardinals have gone just 2-9 against Vanderbilt, and head into this weekend riding a five-game series losing streak.
The most recent meeting may have been the most embarrassing for the Cardinals, who were thrashed by the second-ranked Commodores 10-2 inside Jim Patterson Stadium on April 23. It was a game that McDonnell called the turning point of the season, one which forced the Cards to do some serious soul-searching before reeling off 16 straight wins.
Despite the accurately perceived series one-sidedness, postseason history has a way of overriding everything else in sports, and these two teams have more of it than any pair in the region.
Even though Louisville and Vanderbilt have been playing for years, the genesis of the rivalry lies with the 2009 NCAA Tournament regional hosted at Jim Patterson Stadium. It was there that the Cardinals finally got the better of Vandy, winning an emotional 5-3 winner-take-all championship game (the Commodores had defeated the Cardinals 8-4 earlier in the day) to advance to their second super regional in three years.
The rivalry then officially became a rivalry during the regular season meeting in 2010.
The Cardinals and Commodores, both ranked in the top 20 nationally at the time, played for five hours and 33 minutes in front of the largest home crowd ever to see a college baseball game in Nashville. The game ended in the bottom of the 17th when Jason Esposito drilled a solo home run over the left field fence. The third baseman then promptly stared down the U of L bench and flipped his bat into the air, which landed near the mound and pitcher Andy Flatt.
What Louisville perceived as an act of showboating, Esposito said was an accident.
"I was mortified," Esposito said after the game. "I was worried about whether (the bat) was going to hit anybody. It was definitely not my intention. My emotions got the better of me. I knew it was going to be perceived the wrong way."
Whatever the case, the two teams opted not to shake hands after the game.
That set the stage for another regional showdown at Jim Patterson Stadium in June, where arguably the best Cardinal team of all-time was expected to make another run to the College World Series and have a legitimate shot at a national title. Vanderbilt made sure that didn't happen, bouncing back from a 7-1 defeat at the hands of U of L to stun the Cards in consecutive games and claim the regional title. The second victory came via a brutally dramatic walk-off suicide squeeze in the bottom of the 10th inning.
The two teams will meet in the postseason for the first time since that game on Saturday, in what some national writers are calling the best matchup of the super regional round. Though a trip to Omaha is obviously the primary prize, there's no question that some serious bragging rights will make the weekend even more interesting.
Here's the full series schedule:
Game One: Saturday, June 8 at 3 p.m. (ESPN)
Game Two: Sunday, June 9 at 4 p.m. (ESPN)
Game Three (If Necessary): Monday, June 10 at 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
Get it done, fellas.