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 or an old Big East Big East and current ACC cohort like Syracuse. The basis for these rivalries centers around the heightened importance given to football and men's basketball ... or in Memphis' case, pretty much 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 Tuesday night at Jim Patterson Stadium, when the Cards face the Commodores for the first time since Vandy knocked off U of L in Omaha in the first game of their run to the national title.
When looking at the U of L/Vandy series on paper, it might seem like the word "rivalry" is a mistake. The Commodores lead the all-time series 23-7 and had been 13-0 against Louisville in games played in Nashville before U of L's current three-game winning streak. The 'Dores have been fairly dominant even during the Dan McDonnell era, owning a 10-5 advantage over the Cards.
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 met in the postseason for the first time since that game in June of 2013, when a Louisville team that had been pummeled by Vandy just seven weeks earlier went down to Nashville and stunned the second-seeded Commodores on consecutive days to earn a trip to the College World Series. It was cool.
The next item on U of L's rivalry to-do list was claiming the traveling barrel trophy that the two teams began playing for in 2011. Vanderbilt had maintained the barrel in each of the previous two seasons via convincing victories, but the Cards went down to Nashville and brought it back to the Derby City after an 11-7 victory in a game that was supposed to be won with pitching and defense.
The promise of pitching and defense was realized a few weeks later, when the two squads met up for yet another postseason meeting, this one in Omaha at the College World Series. The Commodores won 5-3 in a grinding, 3-hour, 40-minute game that saw Louisville issue nine walks, its third-most of the season. The Cardinals would be eliminated two from the event two days later, while Vandy would use the victory as a springboard to the first national championship in program history.
The latest chapter of the most underrated rivalry in Louisville sports will be written Tuesday night at Jim Patterson, when the Cards and Commodores will square off in the regular season as top 10 foes for a second straight year. U of L enters the tilt ranked No. 2 in four of the five major polls, but Vandy still has a shot at a national seed, and appears to have a strong shot at defending its national title.
Here are your game day vitals for what should be another classic:
#2 Louisville (40-12, 23-4 ACC) vs. #7 Vanderbilt (36-16, 18-9 SEC)
Date: Tuesday, May 12, 2015 | 6 p.m. ET
Location: Louisville, Ky.
Venue: Jim Patterson Stadium (4,000)
TV: ESPN3 (Watch)
Radio: 93.9 The Ville
LOU: Fr. RHP Kade McClure (1-0, 3.08 ERA)
VU: Fr. LHP Ryan Johnson (4-0, 1.94 ERA)