A Perfect Chance for a Championship

Louisville's second baseman Nick Solak fielded a ground ball touched second base for the force out and threw to first to complete a double play. SIU Edwardsville's Aaron Jackson slid but was unable to breakup the double play.

Louisville’s second baseman Nick Solak fielded a ground ball touched second base for the force out and threw to first to complete a double play. SIU Edwardsville’s Aaron Jackson slid but was unable to breakup the double play.

When Dan McDonnell inherited the Louisville baseball program in 2007, the Cardinals had been to the NCAA Tournament just once and had never tasted victory in the summer version of the big dance. Since then, UofL has missed the NCAA Tournament only once, hosted five NCAA Tournament regionals and been to the College World Series three times.

“The ultimate goal is to win a national championship,” McDonnell said at UofL baseball’s media day last week. “We’ve put it out there. You have to say it, you have to see it and you have to believe it. It doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to get to the top of the mountain, but we’ve come to realize the only way you’re going to get there is to do those things.”

This isn’t just wishful thinking or preseason bravado. With all due respect to the teams coached by Bobby Petrino, Rick Pitino, Jeff Walz and Ken Lolla, none of them had or have as much of a shot at winning a national championship as McDonnell’s squad does.

A season ago, Louisville set an ACC record for conference victories (25), tied a program record for both wins (47) and final national ranking (No. 6), and were the No. 3 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Returning the lion’s share of contributors from that team meant that McDonnell wasn’t the only one this offseason saying that the goal for this Cardinal squad should be nothing less than achieving the sport’s top prize.

U of L pitcher Kyle Funkhouser pitched the first pitch of the game against SIU Edwardsville.

U of L pitcher Kyle Funkhouser pitched the first pitch of the game against SIU Edwardsville.

Kyle Funkhouser is entering his third season as Louisville’s No. 1 starting pitcher. He ranks second on UofL’s all-time list and stunned much of the college baseball world when he chose to return to school after being selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first round of last summer’s MLB Draft. He’s followed in the rotation by Brendan McKay, the reigning national Freshman of the Year and the John Olerud Award recipient as the nation’s best two-way player. A season ago, the former blue chip prospect posted the best statistics of any of the Louisville pitchers (9-3, 1.77 ERA) while also batting cleanup and playing first base for the Cards.

McKay won’t be draft eligible until 2017, but a pair of his teammates have the potential to be very rich men a few months from now. Junior outfielder Corey Ray (.325, 11 home runs, 56 RBIs, 34 steals in 2015) is listed by some MLB scouts as the top position player prospect in all of college baseball. The Chicago native started his third season as a Cardinal by earning ACC Player of the Week honors after going 6-for-9 at the plate with two home runs, seven RBI, nine runs scored and 6-for-6 on stolen bases on opening weekend. Funkhouser and Ray are joined in mock drafts all over the Internet by closer Zack Burdi, who like his older brother, Nick, regularly hits triple digits with his fastball.

Burdi, who finished last season with nine saves and a 0.92 ERA, was asked on Louisville’s media day what one thing he would change about his team to make them even more likely to end their season in Omaha at the College World Series.

“I’ll be honest,” Burdi said. “I’m not saying we’re a perfect team, but from the inside out, we have everything we need to accomplish our goal of a national championship. The only team that’s going to beat us this year is ourselves. I wouldn’t change anything.”

Louisville outscored SIU Edwardsville 43-5 and won each game of a three-game series by at least nine runs for the first time in program history. Additionally, a whopping 3,116 fans walked through the gates of Jim Patterson Stadium last Friday, the largest crowd ever to see a UofL baseball opener.

Some of the reason for the larger-than-usual February baseball crowd had to do with the unseasonably warm weather, but it would be foolish to think that was the only reason.

This hasn’t exactly been the easiest athletic season for die-hard Cardinal fans. The football team began their season 0-3, and the men’s basketball team is about to experience life without a postseason of any sort for the first time since 1965.

If, in fact, “all’s well that end’s well,” Card Nation might wind up very thankful that McDonnell and his team are serving as the anchor for 2015-16. VT

Photos by Bill Wine