By Jason Wyrick
Photo By Jared Anderson
Yesterday, Dan McDonnell’s Louisville Cardinals punched the first ticket to the College World Series in 2019. For Coach Mac, this is Omaha trip number five in 13 seasons at the helm of the Louisville program. They faced multiple adversarial predicaments early in the postseason and then a rather angry East Carolina team to get to this point and it’s the journey of the last few weeks that truly defines this team. Let us start from the beginning.
These Cardinals went 43-13 in the regular season. They dominated the Atlantic division en route to an outright ACC regular season title, the fourth in five years in the conference. Just another season at the office under McDonnell.
Then came the postseason.
The Cards boarded a flight to North Carolina and expected more of the same when they arrived in Durham. Well, the players did. I still wonder about the bats, they never showed.
Top seed Louisville opened the ACC tournament with a matchup against Boston College, a bottom feeder of the conference and a team that mustered a last place finish in the Atlantic Division.
This was a classic David versus Goliath type of matchup. Unfortunately for the Cards, we all know how that tale ends.
Louisville’s nine were mowed down by Dan Metzdorf, a senior lefty from BC who pitched the game of his life, conceding a lone unearned run while going the distance for the first time in his collegiate career. The Eagles won 5-1.
With pool play having already sent the Eagles to the semi finals and the Cards packing after the round, a lone game against Clemson remained. On the line for the Tigers was a resume booster that could potentially get them into a regional. On the line for Louisville? Pride and potentially a national seed.
Clemson upset the dejected Cardinals in a 7-1 game that never really felt close. In the end, that game mattered a whole lot more for Clemson than it did Louisville. It put an otherwise bubble team firmly into the dance as the 3 seed in the Oxford regional, hosted by Ole Miss.
Louisville, despite laying an egg the conference tournament, still got a national seed. The Cards scraped by on their dominant regular season in the tough ACC to get the #7 national seed, one that guaranteed hosting the Super Regional if your squad plays in one. This came at the expense of East Carolina, a team that vehemently cried foul that they were snubbed. We will get back to that, I promise.
The Louisville regional opened last Friday with the third seeded Illinois State Redbirds upsetting the two seed Indiana Hoosiers. Louisville beatfourth seedIllinois-Chicago before also being damned to the losers’ bracket by the Cinderella Illinois State.
Indiana eliminated UIC in the first round of the losers’ bracket to set up a date with the Louisville Cardinals, a rematch of the May 14th barn burner that saw the Cards victorious in extra innings in Bloomington.
The rematch would be more of the same: competitive and intense. Louisville took an early lead thatIndiana had to chip away at for the remainder of the game. Up 9-5 with two outs in the eighth, closer Michael McAvene was called into action for a four-out save a day and a half removed from his first recorded fastball that reached triple digits, a 100 mph fireball to end the opening round against UIC.
McAvene, working with a four run lead, pitched loose and, although he gave up two runs along the way, looked poised to send the Hoosiers packing with two away in the ninth. With the go ahead run at the plate and 0-2 in the count, Michael was ready to slam the door when he felt the zone begin to tighten on him. He threw a very close pitch that looked to have painted the corner but was ultimately called a ball.
1-2. The batter was still in the hole. The next pitch was watched for what appeared to be strike three.
2-2. Still a pitch to the good, McAvene dealt a filthy curveball that was looked at for what appeared to be another strike three, crossing the plate at the knees before falling out of the would be zone behind the plate where the height no longer matters.
McAvene was in disbelief. What competitor wouldn’t be when the season is on the line and you’re one strike away from sending the other team home instead?
“That’s horrible.” McAvene said that in frustration as he turned around to step on the rubber and try one last time to put away the batter and the Indiana Hoosiers.
Those two words were what broke home plate umpire Ken Langford’s indubitably frail ego. He ejected Michael McAvene from the game for “arguing balls and strikes” without warning, knowing full well that an outlandish four-game suspension would follow. Umpires need to be held accountable and Ken Langford should be the first one reprimanded for his reprehensible knee jerk reaction to an ordinary competitor doing what he does: competing.
Michael Kirian took McAvene’s place and finished the game, recording a save with a lone pitch to strike out the Indiana batter and end their season.
McAvene, meanwhile was relegated to the clubhouse for the end of one game and the entirety of four more, the victim of a rule intended to punish starting pitchers equally to that of their position player counterparts: one start.
Of course, starting pitchers only play once every four games in college, generally speaking. Three weekend games and a midweek one. Obviously, you have to be creative with the vernacular of a rule to ensure adequate punishment for another position for which the main one-game suspension otherwise wouldn’t apply. The problem is that starting pitchers are different. Starters play once every four days. Relievers, especially closers are much more akin to position players in that they get called upon on a much more frequent basis. What is a one game punishment for starters and position players becomes a 300% increase in punishment for that of a bullpen arm.
Unfortunately for Michael McAvene, the vernacular was too vague and, although he may be the sacrifice needed to ensure a revision, he was the victim of that 300% ballooning of the punishment.
Louisville Athletics Director Vince Tyra reportedly met with the head of NCAA Baseball officiating in defense of his closer. That meeting very well might signal the beginning of the repair and revision of this unfortunate mishap. That is, if the NCAA has its head on straight and their thinking caps on. I think I speak for all of Card Nation when I say that I will believe it when I see it.
With their teammate banished to the clubhouse for what could have been the end of his collegiate career, the bats picked up Michael McAvene.
Still infuriated by the injustice of the morning‘s game, the Cardinal nine had another do-or-diegame to play: the championship round of the double-elimination regional. By advancing from the losers’ bracket, the Cards had to win to force a winner-take-all rematch the following day. And win they did.
The bats caught fire in the evening’s matchup against Illinois State, scorching the Redbirds for an 11-2 victory to force a game seven of the regional with a trip to the Super Regionals on the line.
The next day was more down to earth from the Cards, relatively speaking of course. Sure, they didn’t blaze through the Illinois State pitchers like they did the evening previous, but it looked like an entirely new team from what was shown in Durham.
What a difference one simple thing makes.
The clock struck midnight for Illinois State as the Cards squeaked by to punch their ticket to the Super Regional. It was an ugly game, but an ugly win is still a win. On to the Supers.
Waiting on the other side of the bracket for Louisville were the aforementioned East Carolina Pirates. Historically, they were 1-8 in the Super Regional round and they were poised to overcome the long odds of being a small conference team hosed out of hosting a Super Regional… or whatever their coach said. I stopped listening when he stopped making sense.
The Pirates were angry… or so they thought. Compared to Louisville’s squad though, the Pirates were mildly displeased.
Michael McAvene was unjustly suspended by a terrible judgment from an umpire and was punished four times over for his apparent transgression.
His teammates epitomized it: these boys were ANGRY.
Angry they were and angry they played. The Louisville lineup became a buzzsaw that sliced and diced right through every arm East Carolina threw at them. They won game one on Friday 14-1 behind a seven inning gem from ace Reid Detmers. That sure is a good way to compensate for your closer being suspended.
Game two was played yesterday. I believe most people expected the Saturday showdown to be much more competitive. I know I did. East Carolina was a good team who were playing for their season, after all. Oh, and they were still out to prove a point that they should’ve hosted this round.
Someone must’ve forgotten to tell Louisville.
The Cards scoffed at the thought of a game three and managed to sharpen the blade on the buzzsaw. Not only did the bats explode for another double digit outburst that itself would’ve won most games, sophomore Bobby Miller put an exclamation point on the statement the Cardinals made to all of college baseball. He took a no-hitter into the ninth inning of a Super Regional. He couldn’t finish it off, but he did only surrender the lone hit before he was given a curtain call by Dan McDonnell.
Chants of “Bob-by! Bob-by!” echoed throughout Jim Patterson Stadium as he handed the ball off to stand-in closer Michael Kirian and walked to the dugout. He hugged his teammates one by one and saluted the fans who cheered him on and chanted his name.
Kirian closed the game and put pen to paper on the statement to the rest of the college baseball world: be very afraid of the Louisville Cardinals.
Next Stop: Omaha
This Louisville team may not be the most talented group we’ve ever sent to Omaha. They are however, the most dangerous. Frankly, it isn’t close either. Postseason baseball is all about who gets hot at the right time and these Louisville Cardinals are scorching.
The Cards have four pitchers who can be trusted to start any game and keep you in striking distance to win. They have an embarrassment of riches in the bullpen, accentuated by the return of the fireballer Michael McAvene at the back end.
Then again, we already knew what this team was capable of on the mound. The question was always if the bats would come back to form. The last 10 days answered that question with a resounding yes.
These Louisville Cardinals have the look of a championship caliber team. The arms are dominant. The bats are scorching hot. They are playing angry and with a purpose. They were the first team to punch a ticket to the College World Series and will be well rested. Oh, and did I mention that the Cards only used four arms the entire Super Regional? Most of the bullpen (and second ace Nick Bennett) are all going into Omaha on close to two weeks of rest. Most importantly though, they have momentum firmly on their side.
This Louisville team is the most dangerous team in the country right now and it would surprise exactly no one if they were to win the whole thing in two weeks. These boys are playing with an unprecedented fire under them and ironically enough, the thin-skinned hothead behind the plate that day against Indiana is actually who Card Nation has to thank for it.
Jason Wyrick is a co-owner and contributor of River City Cards. He can be followed on Twitter @Steagles1.