Cards: The Winningest Losers

Grant Kay.

Grant Kay.

There is a bizarre, but increasingly frequent, phenomenon in American sports where the more you win, the more likely you are to wind up with a negative stigma attached to your team, or franchise, or program. I like to call it “Buffalo Bill Syndrome.”

You see, for reasons that will never make a great deal of sense, the Bills would have been much better served by losing in the 1991 and 1992 AFC championship games. Had that been the case, Buffalo would have been known as the franchise that made it to the Super Bowl in 1990 and 1993, and not forever stigmatized as the franchise that lost four straight Super Bowls from 1990-93. The Bills became the NFL’s most notorious losers…because they won too much.

Cole Sturgeon.

Cole Sturgeon.

The latest victim of BBS is the Louisville baseball program, which earlier this week became the first team sent home from the College World Series for a second straight year. The loss was UofL’s fifth straight in Omaha, a place where they now own an all-time record of 1-6.

As was the case in 2013, the Cards played a brand of ball that anyone who followed the team for the previous three months wouldn’t have been able to recognize. They made errors in the field, they chased pitches out of the zone and they squandered opportunity after opportunity with runners in scoring position.

“When you don’t play clean, it gets magnified,” head coach Dan McDonnell said. “I want our kids to hold their heads high. It really hurts. They wanted more.”

The final out was still minutes away from being recorded, but the predictable questions had already begun to fly. Why does Louisville always seem to tighten up on the sport’s biggest stage? What does Omaha do to these guys? Is this team ever going to be able to win at the College World Series?

This is what BBS does. It turns a season where a team won 50 games, a conference championship and was one of the last eight teams in the country standing, and makes it feel like some sort of failure.

Like the Final Four in college basketball and the BCS (or now, the new four-team playoff) in college football, the College World Series is college baseball’s benchmark. Making it to Omaha, regardless of how things go after that, results in a ring, a mark of distinction at your home stadium and a place in history that can never be taken away. That goes for each and every program in the country.

Nick Burdi.

Nick Burdi.

To think that Louisville would have been better served this season by losing in the regional or super regional inside their home stadium is outrageous. It’s especially preposterous when you consider where this program has come from.

Before Dan McDonnell arrived in 2007, UofL baseball had been to one NCAA Tournament and won a grand total of zero games in the big dance. Since then, the Cards have missed the tournament just once, played in four super regionals and advanced to the College World Series three times. Imagine Chris Collins turning Northwestern into a mainstay in the Elite 8 and Final Four over the next decade and you’ll get a better picture of what McDonnell has done.

Having said all that, it’s pretty clear what the next step for Cardinal baseball is. Making it to Omaha is always going to be an accomplishment worth dogpiling about, but it’s never going to be met with the same virginal euphoria of 2007. Great success brings even greater expectations, and McDonnell and company know that their fan base is desperate to see the Cards make a deep College World Series run in the near future.

That future could be sooner than you’d think.

Kyle Funkhouser.

Kyle Funkhouser.

College baseball programs typically exist in three-year cycles. First, you bring in an elite crop of youngsters and throw them directly into the fire and hope they can rise to the occasion. In year two, you hope that those players have accrued the experience necessary to compete for a conference title and maybe make a run in the NCAA Tournament. Year three is the year. That’s when you shoot for Omaha and, if you’re among the nation’s elite, a national title. After that, all your key juniors and seniors head off to play the game for pay and you begin the cycle all over again.

The funny thing about the past season for Louisville is that it was supposed to be year one of that cycle. The year was 2013, and the Cards weren’t expected to be a major player on the national scene again until 2016.

The Cards’ three starting pitchers who carried the team in the postseason? Two sophomores and a freshman. The Cardinal with the most runs driven in during the regional tournament? Freshman Corey Ray. The MVP of the super regional against Kennesaw State? Freshman Nick Solak.

Guys like Nick Burdi and Jeff Gardner did incredible things for this program and will be missed badly next season, but Louisville baseball isn’t going anywhere. Ignore any of the symptoms of BBS, and know that the next step is coming soon.


  Photos Courtesy of UofL Athletics