LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The long awaited start of the 2016 college baseball season has finally arrived, and College Baseball Central was on hand for the home opening series at Jim Patterson Stadium, home of the University of Louisville Cardinals.
This series will be the first time Louisville has opened a season at home since their dismantling three-game sweep of Bowling Green State in 2010.
In town to face the No. 2 ranked Cards for the first ever meeting is the Cougars of SIU Edwardsville. Although on paper Louisville looks to be the clear favorite in this series, one can never be sure what product is on the field until teams have stepped between the lines and baseball play has commenced.
The No. 2 ranking that UofL brings in to the 2016 season is the highest pre-season ranking for the Cards in program history. Louisville was the unanimous No. 2 ranked team in all six major polls.
Louisville brings back an experienced team, that set many records last year on their way to a ACC Atlantic Division title, sporting the most league wins in conference history while advancing to a third consecutive NCAA Super Regional.
SIU Edwardsville completed the 2015 season 20-30, and finished third in the Ohio Valley Conference. Skippered by Tony Stoecklin, the Cougars are forecasted to finish seventh this year in the OVC.
Friday’s (Feb 19) matchup, which showcased a pitching matchup of Cardinal All-American Kyle Funkhouser (1-0), and Cougar RHP Connor Buenger (0-1), was nothing short of domination personified by the Cards. They only allowed eight hits, while racking up 17 of their own, on their way to a 21-4 rout of SIUE.
Again, no big surprise, however Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell certainly took solace in the fact that his ball club shot out of the gate in 2016 with such ferocity both behind the plate and on the mound.
“We did a little bit of everything,” McDonnell told College Baseball Central. “Quality starts, the bullpen did a really nice job, and we were able to pitch a lot of guys. Defensively we were able to challenge these guys at the plate, and we got a lot of quality at-bats.”
A little self-efficacy can go a long way in baseball, and watching your star pitcher notch his first win, and your lineup one through nine swing the lumber in this fashion, has got to be a great feeling to say the least. Sophomore Colby Fitch, with a big home run, and senior Danny Rosenbaum, who was 2-for-4 with 4 RBI, led the way for a Cardinal offense that was not to be denied this day.
On Saturday (Feb 20) the pitching matchup consisted of sophomore LHP phenom and consensus 2015 Freshman of the Year Brendan McKay (1-0) for Louisville and Cougar senior RHP Jarrett Bednar (0-1).
Once again the Cardinal offensive attack and pitching power would prove to be too much for an SIUE club that gave up 12 hits and could only muster four hits of their own.
McKay helped his cause with a huge home run, and outfielder Corey Ray – who is on the 2016 Golden Spikes Award watch list – blasted his first round-tripper of the year as well. Junior infielder Nick Solak also registered a school record with five walks.
“The approach is better,” said Ray about his performance compared to last years. “You don’t miss those pitches that you can hit home runs on. I am just toning it down and having a good approach at the plate. From a confidence standpoint this was a really great weekend. This team has been known as a pitch heavy team and I think we proved we are just as good at hitting.”
McKay pitched a solid five innings, only giving up three hits, however, his four base-on-balls allowed may point to a little early season jitterbugs. Which is uncharacteristic of the young talent given his reputation for nerves of steel. Nevertheless, all-in-all another fantastic performance from Louisville.
Sunday would see junior LHP Drew Harrington (a favorite amongst Louisville baseball staff) face off against SIUE junior RHP P.J. Schuster.
Staying in line with the production from the two previous outings, Louisville bats exploded early and often, with yet another big home run from Ray (2), and solid pitching from Harrington (1-0) to boot.
“We have a lot of balance, and we have a lot of guys coming back, with a lot of success in the past,” Said Harrington. “I think we have the fastest outfield in the country. One thing that Mac [Dan McDonnell] stressed in this series was defense. I think we did that, and if we can continue that this year we are going to beat a lot of teams.”
Solak added a 1-for-2 day at the plate with three RBI and two runs scored, while Rosenbaum continued his outstanding performance from Fridays and Saturday’s games with a 1-for-4 day at the plate along with two RBI.
It was clear that SIU Edwardsville was out matched this weekend. Louisville put a relentless pressure on the Cougars that consisted of McDonnell’s staple base path dominance, stalwart starting and bullpen pitching, seasoned with clutch at-bats throughout the entire lineup.
Sundays tilt ended with the Cardinals on top 10-1, and with this a sweep of the SIUE Cougars. Great start to the season for McDonnell and the Cards.
Louisville will face Eastern Kentucky in a mid-week tilt, followed by a road series against a tough Ole Miss team this coming weekend.
After scoring 43 runs and only allowing nine, it’s almost certain that production will meet a wall of some sort moving forward in to conference play. McDonnell seems to have this team’s mindset in the right place however, always living by the “Don’t get to high, don’t get to low creed”.
All eyes on this program and deservedly so. It is rare to see the total team compilation rounded so well as we do with these 2016 Cardinals.