LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Here in the capital of the north in college baseball, there’s quite a view from the second deck of the ballpark. Look to right field, and beyond the wall is the huge football stadium, and the railroad tracks that always seem to have a freight train slowly moving somewhere. Look out the back, there are the famous twin spires of Churchill Downs, a few blocks away.
And down below on the sidewalk by the main gate in stencil, the theme of the month with Louisville baseball. The Road To Omaha Goes Through The Ville.
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“The bar is set very high here,” coach Dan McDonnell mentioned, and you can tell.
The Cardinals are headed back to Super Regionals, and boy, did they have to get there the hard way.
. . . having to come through the loser’s bracket of their own regional. They did that by winning three games in 28 hours. See McDonnell pointing out to his players after they’d lost Saturday how eight No. 1 seeds had to try to do that this weekend, and his 2007 Louisville College World Series team managed it, too. “Why can’t it be us?” he said he told them. “Just making sure guys believed. You can do a lot of things with belief.”
. . . having to recover from blowing a two-run lead in the top of the ninth inning Monday against Illinois State, when Trey Leonard misplayed a sinking liner to center that could have ended the game. They did that with a walk-off single by Alex Binelas in the bottom of the inning, scoring — ah, baseball fate — Leonard, who had reached base with a swell bunt. See McDonnell with his arm around Leonard in the dugout after the error, joking with him about not being like Linus from Peanuts, forlornly dragging a blanket. “He got me to smile a little bit,” Leonard said. “I just told myself to make up for it . . . You’ve got to forget about it, you’ve got to flush it. You just have to make positive out of everything.”
. . . having to go without their closer and his 100 mile-an-hour fastball. See Michael McAvene — well, nevermind, nobody saw him Monday, since he wasn’t allowed in the ballpark. The circumstances of his absence, we’ll get to in a moment.
THE FRESHMAN WALKS IT OFF FOR THE CARDINALS! #RoadToOmaha | @LouisvilleBSB pic.twitter.com/le2W2NxdEz— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 3, 2019
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Anyway, the Cardinals overcame all that with grit and purpose and mostly with a lot of pitching. Needing to beat Illinois State Sunday night (11-2) and again on Monday (4-3) to advance, the pitchers took the tournament by the neck, allowing six runs and seven hits in 18 innings, while striking out 21.
“It just shows how tough this team really is,” said outfielder Jake Snider.
The traffic on the road to Omaha is almost entirely southern and West Coast plates, but there’s often been room for Louisville, too. McDonnell’s 13 seasons have included 12 berths in the NCAA tournaments, four College World Series trips, and now eight super regional appearances. “I don’t want to act like we’re the only representative of the Midwest, but we’re definitely a face of Midwest baseball,” McDonnell said.
All done with a certain emotional edginess of style, developed in the snowy days of winter, with an eye toward the warm, tense and telling days of early summer. “We always say if the stars have got to line up for you have to have success, you’re probably not going to be real successful,” McDonnell said. “You’ve got to be able to handle the curveballs and the challenges. We did it.
🎥 Cool hand Luke doesn't need a glove! @lukesmith1551— Louisville Baseball (@LouisvilleBSB) June 2, 2019
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“Sometimes it can put more pressure on kids. But it validates why we do what we do throughout the year.”
Been that way since McDonnell’s arrival. On his 353rd day on the job as a head coach, the Cardinals took the field in their first-ever CWS. No rookie coach had gotten his team to Omaha in 27 years. His program is a little hard to define geographically, sitting here on the Ohio River, which is something of a Mason-Dixon Line. Is Louisville the most northern of southern schools in baseball, or the most southern of northern schools?
“In the world of recruiting we’re a southern school,” McDonnell said. “I always tell kids — I’m honest, I’m a recruiter but I always tell them — we’re not Miami. We’re not 80 and sunny all the time, but it is Kentucky, so you’re in the south.”
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He uses this sales pitch especially well in the Midwest. Louisville’s ACC membership has it cavorting with a lot of warm-weather teams, but make no mistake — they have winter in Kentucky.
“I remember thinking when I got here, we can go north and we can get kids who want to come south,” said McDonnell, a native New Yorker. “We went into those Midwest states and what I learned about them — which is what I thought and hopefully what I was — was a competitive tough kid.”
The current roster is filled with players who seem to have a nose for June.
When your pitcher is so 🔥 that you get a 🚂 conductor to toot their horn— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 3, 2019
TOOT TOOOOOOOT #RoadToOmaha | @LouisvilleBSB pic.twitter.com/8Paq1ilDmU
Take Illinois native Snider. The junior outfielder has four career home runs. Three of them have come in the NCAA tournament. He had three of Louisville’s seven hits Monday and drove in two of its four runs. “They’re calling him Postseason Jake,” McDonnell said.
Or Wisconsin native Binelas, the heart of the offense as a freshman.
Or Luke Smith from Illinois. He hadn’t started a game since mid-April, but when Louisville needed a big performance from someone to ease the pitching staff through the draining demands of the loser’s bracket, he delivered 8.1 innings of three-hit baseball in an 11-2 win over Illinois State Sunday night. He threw 129 pitches, as the chants of Luuuuuuuuke! grew louder by the inning from the packed house. He thought they were booing until a teammate pulled him aside corrected him. Dude, they're saying your name.
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“I’m usually a guy that I try to block out the crowd noise but I took a step back and kind of listened to it for a second and it was a cool experience, having that many people saying your name,” he said.
Or Leonard, a sophomore from Iowa, who did not crumble after what could have been an infamous error, but helped grab the game back. It was at that moment — a 3-1 lead vanished in the ninth and a kid mortified by his hand in it — that McDonnell turned to different coaching muscles.
“I tell recruits this, and families this. I’m a better coach than I was 10 years ago, obviously through experience, but I have a 17 year old and a 21 year old, so I know what these parents are going through better than 10 years ago, when they were seven and 11. So when you see a kid struggling or getting down on himself, that could be my kid.
THIS. HOME. RUN. 😱#RoadToOmaha | @LouisvilleBSB pic.twitter.com/lb3okYRJtJ— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 2, 2019
“You don’t want him to feel like he’s responsible. It’s what makes this a great game; you usually get a chance to redeem yourself. Not all the time, but it’s amazing how many times you get a chance to redeem yourself.”
Which is what happened for Trey Leonard.
“I challenge these guys all the time about toughness,” McDonnell said. “This is a frustrating game, this is a hard game. You’ve got to be able to deal with failure.”
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Or unforeseen events. Which brings us to closer Michael McAvene, a flame thrower from Indiana who hit 100 on the last pitch to end Friday night’s win. Thinking he had the last strike again Saturday against Indiana, he was ejected when the call went against him. “That’s horrible,” he muttered. Something like that. Anyway, ejection for a pitcher means a four-game suspension. He won’t be back until the third game of the super regional, if there is one. Another adversity for Louisville to overcome.
The Cardinals will try to carry on, as they usually do, which is why they’re the best northern team in June. If they’re a northern team at all.