College basketball’s annual postseason has a well known reputation for being “mad.” Despite all the marketing centered around the madness of March, it’s probably the NCAA basketball tournament’s baseball brethren that’s more deserving of the adjective.
While college basketball prides itself on giving Cinderella a chance, it’s college baseball that has actually seen the little guy capture the sport’s top prize. In 2016, Coastal Carolina from the lowly Big South took down the likes of Florida, TCU and Arizona to win the national title. In 2008, Fresno State, a No. 4 seed – the lowest seed in the NCAA baseball tournament and the equivalent of a 13-16 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament – won it all.
The point is that college baseball’s postseason comes with even fewer guarantees than the single-elimination basketball tournament that captivates this area for one month every year.
Dan McDonnell’s Louisville Cardinals know this all too well. In 2015 and 2016, U of L carried both a top eight national seed and legitimate hopes of a national title into the postseason. In each of those two seasons, the Cardinals were stunned on their home field in the super regional round by a California school out of the Big West Conference.
There are no guarantees. Which makes the fact that McDonnell and the Cardinals just landed in Omaha for their fourth trip to the College World Series in seven seasons one which demands proper adulation.
McDonnell’s accomplishments are so well-known by this point that listing them gives one the same sensation felt when knowingly spouting off tired cliches. With the Cards set to take on Vanderbilt at TD Ameritrade Park in just four days, I’m willing to embrace the uneasiness.
When he arrived in 2007, McDonnell inherited a program that had been to just one NCAA tournament and never won a game in the big dance. It had never hosted a regional, never dreamed of hosting a super regional, and was at best an afterthought in the mind of the average Louisville sports fan.
McDonnell promptly took the Cardinals to the College World Series in his first year. He has won the ACC’s Atlantic Division in all but one of his five seasons in the conference, has led Louisville to the best overall record of any program in the country since 2007, produced the consensus national Player of the Year in 2017, and more draft picks over the last 12 years than I could possibly look up without spending more time than I’ve already spent writing this post.
In summary, Louisville baseball was not “a thing” before 2007. It’s absolutely a thing now.
Still, McDonnell is aware that all of this is still, relatively speaking, new to a healthy chunk of U of L fans. Perhaps that’s why he made multiple media appearances over the past month in which he urged his fan base not to take postseason success, or simply postseason home games, for granted.
“The fact that people now view having regional and super regional baseball at Jim Patterson as an annual thing is great,” McDonnell said earlier this month. “But I’m not sure people realize how difficult a thing it is to host a regional. What we’ve done over the past six, seven years, it’s not normal. I think most people realize that. At least I hope they do.”
What Louisville baseball has become over the last decade is remarkable, there’s no arguing otherwise. There’s also no arguing that during a period of unprecedented tumult for U of L athletics, the baseball program has been an unaltered (and comforting) rock.
Now we arrive at the program’s lone flaw. The rushed 30-second ending that ruins the brilliant series or extraordinary film. The sad rescue dog commercial you immediately flip away from and try to put out of your mind.
Louisville is making its fifth trip to the College World Series. In its previous four trips to Omaha, the Cardinals have won just two total games, and never more than one in the same season.
In a sport where consistency of the highest degree is a damn near impossibility, Louisville has achieved it at every rung but the top one. For some fans, baseball-inspired satisfaction won’t arrive until the program takes that toughest of final steps and claims a national title ... or at least hangs around Omaha for more than three or four days. If you’re of the belief that this is overly harsh and unfair, there’s a figurative line of a million people waiting to hit you with a “well that’s sports.”
No college baseball team in the country has a better record over the last 12 years than Louisville does. No college baseball program in the country has made the flip of a switch transition from irrelevancy to perennial national power the way Louisville has. Those two distinctions necessitate reverence, but they guarantee nothing as far as the sport’s biggest stage is concerned.
Diehard and casual Cardinal baseball fans alike have been hungry for the next step for a while now. In a year where Louisville is not one of the favorites to play deep into the CWS, it would be fitting (and perfectly college baseball) if this were the group that could provide the grub.
Let’s go, boys.