After losing the American Athletic Conference Championship game to the Houston Cougars in May, Louisville Cardinals head coach Dan O’Donnell was disappointed, but not discouraged, and as it turns out, maybe a little prophetic.
“The two trips we made to Omaha we didn’t win the conference tournament, so maybe it tells me when you lose and you got a little chip on your shoulder, and leave a little frustrated, maybe it helps you focus on the little things and finadametals. It’s humbles you and reminds you got to play this game the right way, especially in the NCAA’s when you play really good teams, ” said O’Donnell. The Cardinals have not lost since and have made their way back to the College World Series.
American Athletic Conference
Overall: 50-15 - Conference: 19-5
Head Coach: Dan O’Donnnell (8th Year)
CWS Appearances: 3 (2007, 2013, 2014)
After sweeping through the Regional and Super Regional rounds for the second straight season, the Cardinals are the only program from last year’s College World Series field to return to Omaha in 2014.
The Cardinals handled Kent State, Kansas and in state rival Kentucky in the regionals to advance to the Super Regionals and they quickly dispatched Kennesaw Sate in two straight games to advance to Omaha, where they will face a formidable opponent in the Vanderbilt Commodores in their first game.
Louisville beat the Commodores in Nashville earlier this season
Kyle Funkhouser turned in a solid outing, working seven innings of three-run ball on three hits, fanning seven and surrendering five free passes in game one, and the Cardinals mounted a three-run go-ahead rally in the eighth to take the 5-3 lead and eventual victory.
Nick Solak and Cole Sturgeon dove in three runs each to lead Louisville to a 7-4 win in game two an clinch a return trip to Omaha
The Cardinals feature one of the premier offenses in all of college baseball. The Cardinals are ranked 8th nationally in HBP (106), 5th in runs (413), 14th in hits (623) and 26th in scoring (6.4 per game) and seemingly produce a different hero every game.
In five NCAA games this season, Sturgeon is hitting .421 (8-for-19) with four RBI and four runs scored.
Freshman Nick Solak comes into the CWS with a .400 average (6-for-15) with two doubles, one home run, seven RBI, four runs scored, four walks and two stolen bases in five NCAA Championship starts.
Senior Jeff Gardner is hitting .279 (12-for-43) with four doubles, one triple and five RBI in 13 career NCAA postseason games.
Louisville finds way to create runs, stealing 11 bases in 13 attempts through five games in the NCAA Championship led by Sutton Whiting with steals in four attempts.
Louisville enters the CWS ranked second in the nation in stolen bases with 132 and third in stolen bases per game at 2.03.
C Kyle Gibson (.319, 1 HR, 20 RBIs), 1B Grant Kay (.289, 5, 35), 2B Zach Lucas (.268, 5, 44), 3B Alex Chittenden (.291, 1, 30), SS Sutton Whiting (.212, 2, 17), LF Jeff Gardner (.321, 9, 68), CF Cole Sturgeon (.331, 2, 34), RF Colin Lyman (.265, 0, 16), DH Nick Solak (.267, 2, 24).
Led by All-American Kyle Funkhouser the Louisville pitching staff is ranked 5th in strikeouts per 9 IP (8.5), 11th nationally in hits allowed per 9 IP (7.40) and 21st in ERA (2.78). Funkhouser is tied for the NCAA lead in wins with 13.
The Cardinals have allowed two or fewer earned runs in 39 of 65 games this season. Getting the game to closer Nick Burdi who features a fastball that touches 100 MPH on occasion and a devastating slider usually results in a Cardinals win. Burdi has allowed just two earned runs all season.
Starting pitchers: RHP Kyle Funkhouser (13-2, 1.73), RHP Jared Ruxer (7-1, 2.27), RHP Anthony Kidston (9-0, 3.54).
Relievers: LHP Kyle McGrath (2-1, 1.38), RHP Cole Sturgeon (3-0, 1.98), RHP Jake Sparger (2-1, 3.20), LHP Josh Rogers (3-3, 3.63), LHP Drew Harrington (3-2, 4.95), RHP Nick Burdi (3-1, 0.51, 18 saves).
While its difficult to focus on one player with this team, Freshman Nick Solak has shown an ability to shine in the big moment, in fact seems to relish the opportunities, something that cannot be coached into a player.
Louisville features a line-up that can produce offense from top to bottom. I could have chosen a number of players to watch. You can be sure opposing coaches have more than one player circled on their line-up cards as well.
Louisville comes into the College Word Series with unfinished business on their collective minds. They are going to be tough to beat for anyone. The Cardinals offense can be stopped with a big time pitching performance by the opposition, but then so can all the teams in Omaha. Averaging six plus runs per game is the team I except to see in Omaha.
Their own pitching staff is good enough to carry them through to the final and I expect that’s where they will be when its all said and done.