The summer months are supposed to be the only semi-reprieve that casual fans get from the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry talk that drives so much of the sports conversation in this area.
With no more games to play, smack talk from June-August is typically reserved for the upcoming season or reflections on what happened on the gridiron or the hardwood in the preceding months. This year is different.
This year, the second weekend of June will feature Louisville and Kentucky squaring off in a three-game super regional series at UofL's Jim Patterson Stadium. The winner earns a trip to the College World Series in Omaha, college baseball's ultimate destination. The loser gets dealt the final, and perhaps most painful, rivalry blow of the 2016-17 sports season.
Jim Patterson Stadium has been privy to its fair share of memorable moments in its still relatively brief existence. There was Louisville's first breakthrough in 2007, it's clinching of a second straight trip to Omaha in 2014, and countless other games that have either ended in dog piles or heartbreak.
All that said, I'm not sure any of that is going to be able to compare with the spectacle that will be on display inside that stadium this weekend.
The "Dream Series" is about more than just two of the most contentious rivals in all of American sports. That would be enough to attract eyeballs from all over the country, but the storylines for both teams go much, much deeper.
Adding to the intrigue for the outside world and the nervousness inside the Commonwealth is the fact that these two teams appear to be evenly matched. Yes, Louisville is the national seed, but Kentucky also hosted a regional and possesses a resume that compares quite well to its arch-rivals. The two teams split their regular season meetings, with the Cardinals winning 5-3 at home and the Wildcats returning the favor with an 11-7 triumph in Lexington.
"If we played 100 times, we'd probably win 50 and they'd win 50," McDonnell said after the first meeting between the two back in April.
There won't be 100 meetings between the two teams, just three. The squad that wins two gets to go to Omaha and compete for a national title. The squad that doesn't has to sit around for the rest of the summer knowing that they were robbed of that opportunity by the team they detest the most. The stakes don't get much higher than that.
Bring on the drama. Bring on The Dream Series.
LOUISVILLE CARDINALS (50-10) vs. KENTUCKY WILDCATS (43-21)
It's not difficult to argue that even though the program has been much more successful than Kentucky over the last 10 years, the stakes are even higher for the home team this weekend.
This is U of L's fifth straight trip to the super regionals, the longest active streak of any program in the country. Unfortunately, the Cardinals are also the only program in the country that has been upset as a national seed in each of the last two super regionals. Adding a third year to that streak would be brutal for everyone involved. It would also give strength to the "yeah but they can't get it done when it matters most" movement and detract from the previously unfathomable period of success that the program is currently in the middle of. That would all be very unfortunate for Dan McDonnell and everyone below him.
For the Wildcats, this is a shot at history. A shot to do what Louisville did a decade ago and make its fan base fall in love with college baseball. UK is playing in a super regional for the first time, and just like U of L did in 2007, they got this far with a first-year head coach (Nick Mingione). Two wins over the Cardinals this weekend would create the enormous momentum that the program has felt like it has been on the verge of attaining for a long time now. Postseason disappointment has prevented that from occurring, but for now, the eyes of Big Blue Nation are on the diamond.
Louisville: Pitching, defense and experience
The Cardinals boasts one of the best pitching staffs in the country. Their three starters consist of two All-Americans and a freshman who has yet to taste defeat, and they also have one of the top closers in the country in Lincoln Henzman. U of L is also one of the top defensive squads in the country, owning a .975 team fielding percentage. Shortstop Devin Hairston may be the best defensive middle infielder in the country, and Logan Taylor tracks down balls in the outfield that few other center fielders in the sport can get to.
Unlike Kentucky, Louisville expects to be here. Even though the Cardinals have fallen short in the super regionals the last two years, the routine and the hype are nothing new to them. It’s also worth mentioning that a handful of players on the team, including a pair of every day starters, were on the 2014 squad that played in the College World Series.
The Wildcats might field the most potent offensive lineup left in the NCAA tournament. UK is 15th in the nation in scoring, and also ranks in the top 10 in batting, slugging, OBP, doubles and walks. Kentucky’s first three hitters all enter the series hitting .360 or better, and six of UK’s nine every dat starters are hitting .300 or better. The Wildcats can be a nightmare for right-handed pitchers, boasting six (or seven depending on the lineup) starters who can swing from the left side of the plate.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Defeated Radford (11-6)
Defeated Oklahoma (11-1)
Defeated Xavier (8-7)
Defeated Ohio (6-4)
Lost to NC State (5-4)
Defeated Indiana (14-9)
Defeated NC State (8-6)
Defeated NC State (10-5)
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
1. CF Logan Taylor (Bats Right) (.274 avg/0 HR)
2. C Colby Fitch (Bats Left) (.252 avg/11 HR)
3. 2B Devin Mann (Bats Right) (.273 avg/8 HR)
4. 1B Brendan McKay (Bats Left) (.356 avg/17 HR)
5. 3B Drew Ellis (Bats Right) (.362 avg/17 HR)
6. SS Devin Hairston (Bats Right) (.303 avg/3 HR)
7. RF Colin Lyman (Bats Left) (.294 avg/1 HR)
8. LF Josh Stowers Bats Right) (.315 avg/6 HR)
9. DH Jake Snider (Bats Left) (.294 avg/1 HR)
1. RF Tristan Pompey (Switch Hitter) (.368 avg/10 HR)
2. 1B Evan White (Bats Right) (.368 avg/9 HR)
3. LF Zach Reks (Bats Left) (.360 avg/3 HR)
4. DH Luke Becker (Switch Hitter) (.294 avg/7 HR)
5. 2B Riley Mahan (Bats Left) (.339 avg/15 HR)
6. C Kole Cottam (Bats Right) (.326 avg/7 HR)
7. 3B Tyler Marshall (Bats Left) (.284 avg/1 HR)
8. CF Marcus Carson (Bats Left) (.307 avg/7 HR)
9. SS Connor Heady (Bats Right) (.281 avg/7 HR)
PROBABLE PITCHING MATCHUPS
LOU Kade McClure — JR, RHP (7-3, 3.63 ERA)
UK Zack Thompson — FR, LHP (8-2, 3.52 ERA)
LOU Brendan McKay — JR, LHP (9-3, 2.31 ERA)
UK Sean Hjelle — SO, RHP (11-3, 3.75 ERA)
LOU Nick Bennett — FR, LHP (5-0, 2.70 ERA)
UK Justin Lewis — SO, RHP (6-4, 3.60 ERA)
The Cards drop game one in fairly depressing fashion, but capably bounce back on Saturday and Sunday to punch their ticket to Omaha.
Louisville in three