In May of 2007, the Louisville baseball program had a grand total of one NCAA Tournament appearance and zero NCAA Tournament wins. After last weekend’s sweep of Kennesaw State in the super regional, the Cardinals are headed to the College World Series for the third time in eight seasons.
While the success story of Dan McDonnell’s program is undoubtedly one of the most incredible in the history of UofL athletics, Louisville baseball also has a bit of a dirty secret that they’d like to get right before the whispers get any louder. You see, the Cards haven’t played particularly well after getting to Omaha.
In 2007, a Cinderella Louisville team took a “nothing to lose” attitude into its first College World Series. They collapsed and blew a late lead against perennial powerhouse Rice in their opener, notched a decisive win over Mississippi State, and then struggled to put the bat on the ball in a 3-1 elimination game loss to North Carolina. Last season’s run was even shorter for UofL, which was shut out by Indiana in its opening game and then became the first team eliminated from the event after getting pounded by Oregon State.
While the Cards’ performances in Omaha have done nothing to diminish the accomplishments that came beforehand, there’s a sense around the city there’s something different about this year. McDonnell knows that his team can no longer act like, play like or be one that is satisfied with simply getting to college baseball’s biggest stage. Success breeds change, and for Louisville baseball, that change is personified by the final goal on its list.
The Cards want to win a national championship, and the sense around the college baseball world is that they have the squad to do it.
If UofL does make a legitimate run at a College World Series championship, it’s only fitting that the run will begin against Vanderbilt, the program that has become the Cardinals’ arch-rival.
The fact that Louisville has been able to turn the Commodores into a rival of any sort says as much about the rise of Cardinal baseball as anything else. Vandy dominated the early days of the series so thoroughly that they own a 22-7 record in games against UofL despite the solid back-and-forth the programs have shared in recent years.
Despite the accurately perceived one-sidedness of the all-time series, postseason history has a way of overriding everything else in sports, and these two teams have more of it than any pair in the region.
Even though Louisville and Vanderbilt have been playing for years, the genesis of the rivalry lies with the 2009 NCAA Tournament regional hosted at Jim Patterson Stadium. It was there that the Cardinals finally got the better of Vandy, winning an emotional 5-3 winner-take-all championship game (the Commodores had defeated the Cardinals 8-4 earlier in the day) to advance to their second super regional in three years.
The rivalry then officially became a thing during the regular season meeting in 2010.
The Cardinals and Commodores, both ranked in the top 20 nationally at the time, played for five hours and 33 minutes in front of the largest home crowd ever to see a college baseball game in Nashville. The game ended in the bottom of the 17th when Jason Esposito drilled a solo home run over the left field fence. The third baseman then promptly stared down the UofL bench and flipped his bat into the air, which landed near the mound and pitcher Andy Flatt.
What Louisville perceived as an act of showboating, Esposito said was an accident.
“I was mortified,” Esposito said after the game. “I was worried about whether (the bat) was going to hit anybody. It was definitely not my intention. My emotions got the better of me. I knew it was going to be perceived the wrong way.”
Whatever the case, the two teams opted not to shake hands after the game.
That set the stage for another regional showdown at Jim Patterson Stadium in June, where arguably the best Cardinal team of all time was expected to make another run to the College World Series and have a legitimate shot at a national title. Vanderbilt made sure that didn’t happen, bouncing back from a 7-1 defeat at the hands of UofL to stun the Cards in consecutive games and claim the regional title. The second victory came via a brutally dramatic walk-off suicide squeeze in the bottom of the 10th inning.
The two teams met in the postseason for the first time since that game last June, when a Louisville team that had been pummeled by Vandy just seven weeks earlier went down to Nashville and stunned the second-seeded Commodores on consecutive days to earn a trip to the College World Series.
After a regular-season win in Nashville last month to claim the rivalry barrel that the programs began playing for in 2012, the Cardinals will take a three-game winning streak over Vanderbilt with them to Omaha. It’s a solid confidence booster for a team that now has the chance to create a legacy of being the most successful in the history of Louisville baseball.
“Our ultimate objective is to win a national championship,” McDonnell said last weekend. “These players expect to compete day in and day out. To achieve greatness, you have to shoot for it. You gotta have high goals, you gotta dream big. I let the kids set the goals and we just try to live up to them.”
Both the goal and the dream have shifted from simply becoming a prominent name on the national scene to claiming the sport’s top prize. The road to realizing that goal and dream now begins with the program’s most infamous nemesis. McDonnell and his team wouldn’t have it any other way.
Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune