LOUISVILLE — You wouldn’t know it from the weather, but it’s baseball season for Louisville and after the snow is plowed off the field at Jim Patterson Stadium, the Cardinals will try to pick up where they left off last year.
Actually, they already have. U of L was ranked in the top 10 nationally and was widely considered one of the teams with a good chance of advancing to the College World Series. Fast forward. Now, before even playing a game, the Cards are in the same position.
U of L is ranked in the Top 10 in every preseason poll, as high as No. 2; has been named a solid favorite to win the ACC Atlantic Division and overall championships by the league’s coaches; and can boast five preseason All-Americans, including third baseman Alex Binelas, who was named Preseason National Player of the Year by Baseball America.
U of L’s deep, versatile lineup and pitching staff justify the preseason hype as the Cards head into today’s opener against Bellarmine (weather permitting) in Jim Patterson Stadium for the start of a three-game weekend series.
U of L has arguably the most talented position player group in the country, headed by Binelas, catcher Henry Davis and outfielder Levi Usher, all of whom could be first-round picks in the MLB draft. Shortstop Lucas Dunn and outfielder Luke Brown are also outstanding players.
No wonder the Cards and coach Dan McDonnell are optimistic and have national title on their minds after advancing to the CWS in 2019, then being denied what looked like a good chance to repeat last spring.
“Like Christmas,” is how McDonnell described the start of the season with such a promising group.
“There’s a lot of excitement,” Davis said. “We’ve spent a lot of time and effort since last March getting ready to play again. Putting on the Cardinal uniform is something we all appreciate now more than ever and we’re ready to go.”
McDonnell, whose 618 wins since 2007 are the most in the country, thinks this team has the potential to be his best offensive group, and that’s saying a lot considering that when the plug was pulled on the 2020 season after 14 games, the Cards were third nationally in batting average at .323 and 11th in runs scored at 8.6 per game.
“But I don’t want to get ahead of myself,” McDonnell said. “We’ve had some great lineups, and the reason they were great was because they produced and put up numbers. Yes, this lineup has a chance to produce and score runs, but it takes guys finding their role, doing what they can do to help and staying healthy.”
Dunn was a bit more enthusiastic. “I think we are ready to roll,” said the senior from Panama City Beach, Florida.
Louisville is just as stacked with depth and talent on the mound, despite the loss of aces Reid Detmers (No. 10 overall) and Bobby Miller (29th) to the MLB draft.
Veteran Luke Smith returns, as do experienced relievers Adam Elliott and Michael Kirian. Then there’s Michael Prosecky, who was a midweek starter last year, 27-year-old former Marine and JUCO transfer Anthony Silkwood, Glen Albanese, Tate Kuehner and Jack Perkins, among others.
“Depth is the biggest thing,” Elliott said. “We have a lot of guys we can choose from. We have older guys and younger guys who can step up and really make a big contribution this year. I think it’s going to be one of the best pitching staffs we’ve had and I’m excited for it.”
McDonnell officially named his weekend starting rotation Wednesday and it will be junior right-hander Albanese who will deliver the first pitch against the Knights today. In five relief appearances last year, he compiled a 2.08 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 18-to-1 in 8.2 innings.
Following him to the mound for Sunday’s doubleheader will be senior lefty Elliott and senior right-hander Smith. Elliott is returning for his fifth season but will be making the first start of his career. In 86 innings over 67 relief appearances, he has a 1.88 ERA.
Smith is also returning after deciding not to accept an undrafted free agent contract. Over his U of L career since transferring from Parkland College for the 2019 season, he is 9-1 in 22 appearances and 14 starts, with a 4.03 ERA.
”If we are supposed to be so good offensively and hopefully defensively, then I’d like to think as a pitcher you don’t have to be perfect, just run out there and compete and give us a chance,” McDonnell said. “We’ll take these first three weekends to give guys opportunities and see how it shakes out. It never goes the ways you draw it up. There’s something about the lights being on and guys getting hot and getting that momentum going. I’m excited about the competition on the mound.”
Louisville’s schedule features 51 games, including 30 at home and 36 in the ACC. The Cards will open their league schedule at Georgia Tech March 5-7, then host Boston College in their home ACC debut March 12-14.
With the exception of perennial power Vanderbilt and the traditional home-and-home series against Kentucky, UofL’s non-conference schedule isn’t as strong as most years due to travel concerns caused by the pandemic. In addition to Bellarmine, UK and EKU, its non-ACC opponents are Murray State, Cincinnati, Western Kentucky and Morehead State. Only UC is a road game.
Under a plan worked out by UofL with the Governor’s office and other health officials, attendance at Jim Patterson Stadium will be reduced to 20%, or slightly under 1,000 fans. Tickets will be offered through a combination of partial season ticket packages and free admission for select games. Ticketed events include all 18 ACC games plus UK and Vandy. Free admission will be offered for all other games on a first-come, first-served basis.