NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- You've heard of the Louisville Slugger. Over the next couple of weeks, you're going to hear a lot about the Louisville Slam.
No program had ever captured a single-season Grand Slam of the NCAA's most visible sports -- BCS bowl in football, Final Fours (let alone title games) in men's and women's basketball, and an appearance in the College World Series.
After the University of Louisville beat Vanderbilt 2-1 for a two-game sweep in the NCAA Super Regional in Nashville Sunday, now someone has.
The Louisville Slam. Others may duplicate it. But only one has managed it in the same season. The Cardinals are headed for Omaha and the College World Series for the second time in school history after slamming the door on a Vanderbilt team that had not lost back-to-back home games since 2009.
After the game, the inspirational leader met the administrative leader in front of U of L's dugout. Actually, it was athletic director Tom Jurich who sought out the injured Nick Ratajczak, reaching out to the senior whose left arm was in a sling with a separated shoulder.
Jurich tapped him on the other shoulder and shook his hand and said, "You know, we're not here without you."
Ratajczak looked back at Jurich and answered, "No sir. We're not here without you."
What began with a broken wrist in an improbable comeback in Piscataway, N.J., to reach the BCS Sugar Bowl and continued through a broken leg to reach a Final Four in Atlanta, along with a crashed party to reach the women's Final Four in New Orleans, rolled on in this moment, Ratajczak, throwing his sling into the air and diving headlong into a dogpile in front of the Hawkins Stadium pitchers mound where U of L's arms subdued the nation's No. 2-ranked team.
Since 2007, U of L has been to multiple men's and women's Final Fours, multiple BCS bowls and multiple trips to the College World Series. No other school has done that in that time span, and only five other schools have done it ever -- LSU, Stanford, Texas, Oklahoma and USC. The Cardinals (51-12) will face Indiana this weekend in Omaha.
"I keep showing up and watching our coaches and players do amazing things," Jurich said. "They do the work. At this point, I'm a fan. What they are accomplishing, how can you describe it?"
Retajczak tried. He had a front-row seat. He separated his shoulder in practice getting ready for the Super Regional and tried to go in Saturday's 5-3 win over Vandy, even started the game and logged one at-bat. But he couldn't do it. So he went to the bench.
From the dugout, he saw his teammates go out for the top of the ninth holding to a 2-1 lead. Forty-five times this season, they had taken the field with a ninth-inning lead. Forty-five times they had returned to the dugout with a victory.
Much of that was because of the brilliance of closer Nick Burdi. But after throwing 36 pitches in 1 2/3 work of Saturday's win, Burdi appeared to U of L coaches to be tiring with one out and one on in the ninth.
Earlier in the game, with U of L up 2-1, pitcher Cory Ege described himself as a bundle of nervous energy in the bullpen.
"I went to get a drink of water, and realized when I was holding the cup that my hand was shaking," Ege said. "That's how good Vanderbilt is, and how close we were."
But when the game went to the ninth and Ege got the word to warm up, there was not a whole lot of shaking going on. And when McDonnell made the unusual decision to pull his closer with one out and one on in the ninth, Ege was steady. He got Vandy leadoff man Tony Kemp, a .400 hitter with a .480 on-base percentage, to line out to left.
Then Xavier Turner singled to right and Vandy had runners at the corners.
"That's when you're dying to be between the lines," Retajczak said. "I knew Ege was going to get that last out. All I could think of was how close we were, not worry about how close Vandy was getting."
He was right, Ege blew a 2-2 pitch by Yastrzemski and Louisville was headed for Omaha.
"I just dropped to my knees and raised my arms," Ege said. "We had a feeling we were going to do this. But to be in that moment, it was something else."
Nobody would've been in the moment without Floyd Central product Jeff Thompson. The Big East Pitcher of the Year and third-round draft pick of the Detroit Tigers not only turned in a powerful effort -- striking out nine in seven innings -- but a gutty one, throwing 124 pitches in a tight game, giving up only three hits and one run.
"I was just able to make the right pitches in big situations, not try to do too much and stay within myself," Thompson said. "I didn't have very much control of my fastball today, but thankfully I was able to get some outs."
After taking a 2-0 lead in the second on RBI singles by Zak Wasserman and Sutton Whiting, they left the bases loaded after chasing Vandy's 14-0 starter, Tyler Beede, in the third, then grounded into a bases-loaded double play to end the fourth and left runners at first and second in the third to end the fifth.
Vandy, meanwhile, couldn't take advantage of its own chances. It left runners at first and second to end the fifth before pulling within one run on a Zander Wiel home run in the sixth. The Commodores stranded a runner in scoring position in both the seventh and eighth, before Burdi came on in the ninth.
"There's two kinds of baseball fans in Louisville," McDonnell said. "Those who went to Omaha (in 2007), and those who had to listen to those who went to Omaha. But I've been saying it, I said it at our leadoff banquet, we're going to represent."
Each sport, of course, stands on its own. Each accomplishment should be considered in its own right, as its own major step. But it's hard not to lump together what U of L's programs have done as a whole this season.
"You're a product of your society, and there's a lot of success going on on that campus," McDonnell said. "Credit to our kids for doing their part. . . . It's exciting the direction we're going in. You have to get on the train of success if you want to be part of that athletic program."
After the team left the field, Jurich said, "I'm just happy for the city of Louisville. It's been one, extended run starting with Teddy Bridgewater's performance and running right through this. It's a special time, and we're going to enjoy it."
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