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'Finding the Funk' could key Louisville baseball's run to a national title

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Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

No pitcher in the history of Louisville baseball has won more games, struck out more batters, pitched more innings, or made more starts than Kyle Funkhouser. All that being the case, it seems strange to think that the effectiveness of the senior is being seen as one of the biggest necessities for a potential Cardinal run to the College World Series instead of something closer to a certainty. But here we are.

The story of Kyle Funkhouser's peculiar final season of college baseball actually begin just a little under a year ago, when he was still in the process of wrapping up his junior year. On June 9, 2015, the hard-throwing right-hander was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers with the 35th overall pick in the Major League Baseball Draft, making him the highest draft pick in the history of UofL baseball.

While that seem like it would be cause for celebration, the late first round selection actually came as a bit of a disappointment for Funkhouser, who in the middle of the season had been pegged as the potential No. 1 overall pick in the draft. When the Dodgers, who had already signed top pick Walker Buehler from Vanderbilt, revealed that they were only willing to offer $1.7 million to their second selection, Funkhouser made the surprising and difficult decision to return to Louisville with the intention of making himself a higher selection 12 months later.

"Kyle's decision to return for his senior season was a personal one for him, but I do think it showed the belief he has in himself to improve as a player and a person, on and off the field," Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said in February. "It showed a lot of belief in what he thinks this baseball team can accomplish in 2016."

Instead of looking like a player driven to prove the teams who passed on him wrong, Funkhouser spent the first several weeks of his senior season looking like a pitcher Louisville fans had a difficult time recognizing. While the three other full-time Cardinal starters flourished, Funkhouser lost three of his first five decisions and saw his ERA balloon over 5.0, a place it had never been at any point during his UofL career.

After a weekend series against Virginia in late March where Funkhouser's start served as the only game the Cards dropped, McDonnell was forced to make a difficult decision. He gave star sophomore Brendan McKay the No. 1 starter's role that Funkhouser had held since the first day of his sophomore season, and moved the player who already dominated the UofL record books down to the No. 3 man. It was a shift which was not immediately met with great approval.

"Kyle is a competitor, so we knew that he wasn't going to be thrilled, and he wasn't," McDonnell said. "But we sat down with him and we talked about all the different reasons why this was the best move for everyone involved. Funk's a competitor, but he's also a leader, and he's a guy who's always going to do something if he feels like it's in the best interest of his team."

The statistics show that the move was indeed in the best interest of the team. Louisville has lost just five games since the move was made, and enters this weekend's huge series against No. 10 NC State as the No. 2 team in the country in the latest College Baseball RPI.

Funkhouser has also had a return to form in recent weeks. He's been victorious in each of his last three starts, and has seen his fastball get back to the 90-94 mph range that UofL fans have been accustomed to for the past three years.

"It was another good outing," McDonnell said about Funkhouser's performance in Louisville's 10-6 win at North Carolina last Sunday. "I think that's about a month straight where Funk has looked good and is going in the right direction."

The most accomplished pitcher in Louisville baseball history finally making the transition from "going in the right direction" to "being back to his old self" could wind up being the final piece of a national championship puzzle for the Cardinals.

A version of this column appears in the current issue of The Voice-Tribune