Lofty expectations and a boat load of hype in the world of college sports can be challenging things to fulfill and satisfy. But, the 2016 Louisville Baseball team has, for the most part, done both. With less than a month of baseball remaining on the Cards' regular season slate, Coach Dan McDonnell's ball club looks poised to make a serious run at the school's first ever ACC title and a return trip to Omaha for the school's fourth career College World Series appearance. Before the Cards make more history, however, some things will have to change or at the very least improve for the Cards to meet their desired destiny.
Disagree? The devil's advocate here would predictably say something along the lines of, "Improve and change? What more could you possibly expect from a team that has a 32-9 record?" Well, sometimes sports numbers can be slightly deceiving, especially when it pertains to baseball. Posting 32 wins before the start of May is certainly impressive and not to be overlooked, but instead commended. With that said, it should be noted that this UofL Baseball team has bolstered that record by primarily winning at home and not on the road.
As of today, the Cards have have gone 25-1 at home which is staggeringly good. On the flip side, UofL has posted a losing record from the road going 7-8 thus far in those games. So what does all this really mean in terms of where this Cardinal squad is heading? Let's take a closer look......
● STARTING PITCHING STEPPING UP
It's no secret that heading into this season one of the biggest strengths of the 2016 Louisville Baseball team was starting pitching. Not many teams can run out guys like SR Kyle Funkhouser and SOPH Brendan McKay every weekend. In fact, a lot of college baseball teams would kill to have just one starter with the talents of either one. But surprisingly, neither pitcher has been the anchor to this year's starting pitching staff. Instead, junior left hander and KY native (Central Hardin HS) Drew Harrington has been "the guy" for the Cards in 2016. Harrington has posted a team high eight wins thus far with only one loss. His ERA is a team low 1.39. For anyone not overly familiar with baseball stats, that's really good.
Although he isn't leading the Cards in many pitching statistics, one can't pretend that Brendan McKay has been bad by any means on the mound this season. Last season's John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year has managed to put together a 7-2 record while posting an ERA of 2.54 thus far in 2016. Not too shabby. But where the real pitching mystery lies at this point in the season is with Senior Kyle Funkhouser.
Funk, as he is affectionately known by his teammates, shunned an opportunity to join the Los Angeles Dodgers organization last season after being drafted in the first round (35th overall) to instead return for his senior year with the Cardinals. Good move? Well, hindsight is always 20/20.
Overall, Funkhouser has had a disappointing senior pitching campaign at UofL and his statistics don't lie. He leads the team in walks with 47 and currently holds a 4-3 record along with an uncharacteristically high ERA of 4.95. In a nutshell, Kyle just hasn't been himself. Conversely, there's no need to get it twisted and abandon the ship. In comparison to most other pitchers in America, Funk has not been terrible by any means, just not the stud starting pitcher he has proven to be in his previous seasons as a Cardinal. In order for the Cards to play well into June, they need Funkhouser to return to his old form.
• CURING THE ROAD WOES
Winning on the road is always tough, regardless of the sport. For this Louisville Baseball team, it has been mysteriously challenging. Although currently touting the #2 RPI in all of college baseball and a top 5 national ranking, Louisville has yet to win a road series......not one. Yes, the majority of their road series have not been against cupcakes. In fact, aside from Boston College, all of those road series have come against nationally ranked opponents in Ole Miss, Miami and Florida State. But herein lies the difference between a really good team and one that is considered to be a national title contender.
At some point, the Cards will have to get over the hump when playing away from Jim Patterson Stadium. Sure, the Cards could still manage to possibly secure a national seed in the NCAA Tournament, which would potentially enable them to host a Super Regional. But if that doesn't happen, and it's far from wrapped up, UofL would find itself playing on the road against stiff competition in front of hostile crowds. In addition, if playing for a national title is TRULY the goal of this program (and I believe it is) then you have to win on the road regardless.
Case in point, Ameritrade Park in Omaha is 696 miles from Jim Patterson Stadium.
● REMAINING CONSISTENT
Aside from pitching better and winning away from The Ville, the main thing that the Cards can do to cement its place in the post season and make a post season run to remember is to stay consistent and continue doing all the productive things they have executed thus far in 2016. Corey Ray, as predicted during the preseason, has been terrific all around up to this point. Blake Tiberi, Devin Hairston and Brendan McKay have anchored the offensive onslaught. And with the recent return of leading hitter Nick Solak, the Cards offense looks to be getting a much needed late season jolt. Defensively, the Cards have been rock solid at nearly every position. Devin Hairston has had a banner season with the glove at shortstop. In addition, catcher Will Smith has really come of age as the Cards' backstop.
Aside from driving in runs and recording outs, the Cards have also notably claimed ownership of the state of Kentucky in 2016. After pummeling Western Kentucky twice, UofL grinded out two impressive wins over a solid, nationally ranked UK team. The Cards have now won five straight in the series with their in-state rivals. Sound familiar Bobby Petrino?