Two of college baseball’s premier programs are set to take center stage tonight, as #3 Louisville (39-9) hosts #2 Vanderbilt (38-9) in the Battle of the Barrel. The two schools have had a very competitive rivalry since 2012, with the Cardinals holding a slight 4-3 advantage in the regular season (including winning the last three games). Both schools are also familiar with postseason success: since 2011, both Vanderbilt and Louisville have made three College World Series appearances each (Vanderbilt in 2011, 2014, and 2015; Louisville in 2013, 2014, and 2017).
Both teams enter tonight’s game riding huge waves of momentum. The Commodores have won 11 straight games (tied for the longest active streak in Division I), while the Cardinals are winners of nine straight.
How to Watch / Listen
Tonight’s game between Louisville and Vanderbilt starts at 7 p.m. EDT, with coverage on 93.9 The Ville and available on ESPNU.
Meet the Vanderbilt Commodores
The reason for that? Vanderbilt has an insanely good offense. The Commodores lead the SEC in batting average (.321), slugging (.525), runs scored (405), triples (15), home runs (66), and on top of that, are also third in the conference in walks (261). With the SEC quite possibly being the best conference in college baseball this season, it’s no surprise that Vanderbilt is considered one of the best teams in the country, given their proficiency on offense.
At the heart of it is outfielder J.J. Bleday, who is having an All-American caliber season and potentially a favorite for the Golden Spikes Award this postseason. Bleday just broke the Vanderbilt single-season record for home runs, drilling his 23rd of the season at South Carolina last weekend. The 23 homers lead all of Division I right now, and he also leads the SEC in RBIs (61).
Louisville’s pitching staff will face a Vanderbilt team that is loaded with great hitters from top to bottom, arguably the most depth of any lineup the Cardinals have faced up to this point in 2019. Austin Martin leads the Commodores with a ridiculous .429 batting average, on top of .515 on-base and .715 slugging. Ethan Paul and Philip Clarke are both hitting over .300 with 50+ RBIs tallied; counting Bleday’s 61 RBIs this season, the Commodores are the only Power Five school with three batters driving in at least 50+ RBIs this season. Stephen Scott and Pat DeMarco are also some guys to watch for Vanderbilt, as both have hit 10+ doubles this season.
The offense is the obvious story for Vanderbilt, but their pitching tends to fly under the radar. Vanderbilt is sixth in both ERA (3.93) and opponents batting average (.228), which tends to be enough if your team puts up gaudy offensive numbers like the Commodores have. Sophomore righty Mason Hickman is undefeated at 6-0 with a 2.05 ERA, and will start tonight. He’s been one of Vanderbilt’s most consistent pitchers this season, leading the team in ERA and holding batters to just .198 at the plate. In his last seven appearances, Hickman has recorded at least five strikeouts in each game, and only allowed eight earned runs total during that stretch.
Even if the Cardinals offense can manage to get runs off Hickman early, the Commodores have a solid bullpen behind him. Ethan Smith (4-0, 3.80 ERA) and Hugh Fisher (2.13 ERA) are a couple of names you might see tonight, with potential closer Tyler Brown (2.70 ERA, 11 saves) also looming.
Meet the Louisville Cardinals
If Vanderbilt is the hottest team in the country, Louisville isn’t too far behind. The Cardinals have won nine straight, and 17 of their last 20 games. The 17-3 run has propelled Louisville to a top-five ranking in three of the six major polls, including third in Collegiate Baseball’s poll.
Louisville’s hot stretch can be credited towards their offense, which has really excelled in the last month. The Cardinals have scored 10+ runs in ten of their last 20 games, and have piled up ranked series wins over N.C. State and Miami (FL) while doing so. Alex Binelas has been the cornerstone of that surge, emerging as a power hitter that Louisville desperately needed in their lineup. The freshman is coming off two ACC Player of the Week awards in the last few weeks, and just hit three home runs across all four games last week. Binelas currently leads the Cards with a .344 batting average (among all qualified batters), OPS (1.159), and home runs (nine). If there’s anyone that can come close to the power that Vanderbilt’s Bleday can show, Binelas is the guy for Louisville.
Louisville has also had a lot of consistency from its veterans, juniors Tyler Fitzgerald and Logan Wyatt. Both are currently averaging over .300 at the plate (Fitzgerald at .342, Wyatt at .307), with Fitzgerald leading the team with 56 RBIs. Wyatt has been the usual on-base machine he was last year, drawing an ACC-leading 55 walks and threatening the single-season record of 69 set by Kevin Malone in 1980. Wyatt is also coming off a recent ACC Player of the Week award, earning the honor on April 22nd.
In addition to Binelas, Fitzgerald, and Wyatt, the Cardinals have five other batters averaging over .300 at the plate. Zach Britton is averaging .315 this season (third among qualifying Louisville batters), and was 5-for-12 last week against Western Kentucky and Notre Dame. Even if Britton doesn’t start, Louisville has great depth at the catcher spot: senior Zeke Pinkham and freshman Henry Davis are both averaging over .300 at the plate this season.
Lucas Dunn’s return to the lineup recently has given Louisville some batting depth, as he has averaged .336 batting. Danny Oriente (.305) is another Louisville batter averaging over .300 at the plate, and one of six Louisville players with 10+ doubles (Binelas, Fitzgerald, Wyatt, Oriente, Drew Campbell, and Jake Snider also have 10+ on the season).
Because of this offensive surge, Louisville now leads the ACC in batting average (.298) and is second in doubles (105) and triples (16), and third in RBIs (349).
Not only are the Cardinals ranked first in batting average, they also lead the ACC in ERA (3.29), strikeouts (505), and opponents batting average (.203). Their pitching was expected to be the strength of the team this season, and they have delivered in nearly every game for Louisville. Freshman Jack Perkins will make his third start tonight, and is also undefeated at 3-0 with a 3.20 ERA. Perkins has started the last two midweek games for Louisville, pitching three innings in both contests against Cincinnati and Western Kentucky.
Based on how the last two midweek games have gone, it will likely be a committee effort by Louisville’s bullpen. Adam Elliott and Shay Smiddy are two of the top bullpen options for Louisville, with both guys under 2.60 ERA (Elliott at 2.18, Smiddy at 2.57). Smiddy is also holding opponents to .128 batting at the plate.
Michael Kirian and Michael McAvene are a great tandem for late innings, as both have under 2.00 ERA. McAvene has a team-high six saves and is holding batters to under .140 at the plate this season.
Key to the Game: Pitching
With both offenses being as productive as they have been in recent weeks, the key to the game will come down to pitching, and in particular, how the starters settle in to this highly anticipated contest.
For Vanderbilt, that would mean getting another quality start from Mason Hickman. In his last seven starts, he has gone five-plus innings in five of them, including a couple of seven-inning outings against Western Kentucky and Indiana State. Louisville is a notable step-up in competition compared to WKU and Indiana State, but Vanderbilt has already played a very tough schedule up to this point. The Commodores already have series wins over the likes of Arkansas, Florida, Auburn, and Tennessee, so they will be battle tested heading into tonight’s game.
Louisville, however, hasn’t seen Jack Perkins go longer than three innings in any outing this season. They will need Perkins to settle in early and deliver 4-5 innings of solid work. Giving up early runs to the Commodores will put a lot of pressure on Louisville to try and win a shootout, something that hasn’t worked out very well for many teams in the SEC this season.
But even if Vanderbilt scores a couple of runs early, Louisville’s bullpen should have the advantage on paper. They have plenty of guys who can come in and provide a shutout inning or two (Shay Smiddy and Adam Elliott come to mind), giving the Cardinals offense a chance to catch up and reclaim some momentum.