LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY – On a crackling Sunday night in college baseball, there were scores coming from elsewhere that screamed of parity and defied logic.
Was that really national No. 2 seed North Carolina, appearing in its 30th NCAA Tournament, getting knocked out by Davidson, playing in its first? If this were March, they’d call it a bracket-buster. Was that really Bethune-Cookman beating Florida, a team it had lost to 31 times in a row?
But here, business as usual, mostly. Louisville found a way to survive its regional, because Louisville always does. Five titles in a row, without so much as a loss. Coach Dan McDonnell stood in a hallway after an 8-7 five-lead-change grinder of a win over Xavier – another underdog, out to make trouble Sunday -- and tried to explain such dominance, in a sport so even. Sunday’s win sends the Cardinals off to the Super Regionals at 50-10.
“I don’t want to read off their resume and celebrate this group too much. We have a saying, `We didn’t come here for some of it, we came here for all of it,’ and there’s a lot of baseball to play,” he said. “But I do want to recognize them. I’ve got fifth-year seniors in that group who are 15-0 in the last five regionals . . . 15 and 0. I know how tough that is. I see what’s happening across the country.
“It’s not easy. But these guys have made it look easier than normal.”Ah, but now comes the tricky part.
How best to cap off the golden age of Brendan McKay at Louisville? What if he comes and goes from college baseball -- with all his renown and all his numbers and all his awards – and never sees Omaha?
The draft is coming, when the major league folks must decide if they love McKay more as a pitcher or a hitter. Tough call. Meanwhile, this month is his victory lap in Louisville, never mind the modest 3-for-12 he just hit in the regional. “I keep saying,” McDonnell mentioned the other day, “that I’m glad I’ve been in the dugout to witness this.”
But this week will bring a strong whiff of unfinished business. Louisville won 97 games the previous two years, but both seasons found anguish waiting in the super regionals. In 2015, losing twice in extra innings to Cal State Fullerton. In 2016, eliminated by a UC Santa Barbara walk-off grand slam, the Cardinals forced to watch another team dogpile at home plate in their own ballpark.
Both times, the College World Series was close enough to touch. And then it wasn’t. Louisville last advanced there in 2013 and ’14, as McDonnell’s program thrived. And here the Cardinals are on the doorstep again, at home, against either their old pals from Kentucky or North Carolina State. The last chance for a lot of them, most conspicuously McKay – probably the poster face for college baseball this junior season.
“The last two years kind of rough you up a little bit,” he said. “You go off to summer ball and everybody’s asking you the same questions over and over, like what happened? It’s kind of annoying that you have to get asked that question so many times. The ending just leaves a salty taste in your mouth.”
McDonnell understands the mission his team is on to atone.
“You look at the positive, and you know that they’ll prepare this week, and that’s all we can ask as coaches.”
He also has sensed that justice would only be served if McKay’s glorious road should end in Omaha.
“You don’t want them to try too hard,” McDonnell said. “I think that’s one of the great gifts of McKay, is that he typically doesn’t look like he tries too hard. He plays so even keel, and that’s why he’s been so productive for his three years.
“We’re all hoping, but not just for him. You want all those juniors to get there (five played key roles Sunday night), because you know they’re going to cross the line into pro ball here soon.”
On paper, 2016 seemed like the moment. Louisville was seeded No. 2 nationally, with a loaded roster. Seven Cardinals would be taken in the first 115 spots in the draft. But UC Santa Barbara rained on the parade.
They’re pretty good this season, too. McKay is on the short list of every major national award, and there are five Louisville players in Baseball America’s top 200 prospects list. That includes junior Drew Ellis, who hits behind McKay with a .361 average, though he also struggled in the regional, going 1-for-11. It says something about the Cardinals that they won even with their two big bats on mute.
“Obviously it showed this weekend, when our stars aren’t at their best, the team can pick them up. It’s not a one or two-person show,” said Josh Stowers, who hit .600 with seven RBI in the regional, batting eighth.
The Cardinals started the season 19-0, wobbled toward the end, losing four of five, but righted themselves in time. “An unwritten sense of urgency,” pitching coach Roger Williams said of Louisville’s mood after a quick exit in the ACC tournament. “But this program’s always had a way of being ready to play when a regional started.”
McKay himself gave matching orders, just in case anyone was distracted by draft thoughts: “You’ve got two weeks till that big day. I think everybody just needs to cut whatever ties you have to that day, and focus on what we got right now.”
Such national baseball muscle has not always been here. You can tell by the fact the Cardinals' first NCAA Tournament appearance was not until 2002. There were 241 schools who played in it before Louisville. But times have changed. Xavier coach Scott Googins called McDonnell’s program, “the benchmark in the Midwest right now.”
Not that you don't get history with Cardinals baseball. Some novel items there.
Consider the 1946 team – the War Time Nine, who went 5-5 with a lineup that included a catcher with two Purple Hearts after being shot by a sniper, and two infielders who had been German POWs.
Or the 1981 team that had 112 games on the schedule, before NCAA rules banned such a thing. Turns out 29 were cancelled for various reasons, but the Cardinals went 37-46 in the other 83, playing 32 doubleheaders and squeezing all 83 into 64 days. Apparently, they never got too tired to pitch. On the regular season’s last day, they swept Cincinnati 9-0 and 6-0 with a no-hitter and a one-hitter.
But it’s super regional history they seek now. To get there, they have to make good on the final home series of their most decorated star. Against whom? They have redemption on their minds, not opponent preference.
“It doesn’t matter who comes in here,” pitcher Lincoln Henzman said. “We are not losing three years in a row.”