LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — While the first game of Friday’s NCAA Louisville baseball regional stretched its way through three and a half hours of weather delays, the University of Louisville baseball team kept cool.
In the Cardinals’ clubhouse at Jim Patterson Stadium, they were watching other NCAA Tournament games. They played Pokemon Stadium. One television was tuned to one of The Matrix movies. Nobody seemed to know which one.
Sophomore starter Kyle Funkhouser was taking it all in, trying to remain patient before one of the biggest starts of his career. The Cardinals’ ace wasn’t bothered by the storms that moved through Friday. He focused on another kind of shower — one that no weatherman can affect.
“I get to this point where I have to shower at a certain amount of time before the game,” Funkhouser said. “That’s time to get locked in — so that’s the routine.”
The routine: shower, shave, shutout.
Funkhouser turned in a clean sheet on Friday, pitching eight scoreless innings against Kent State to lead the No. 9-ranked Cardinals to a 5-0 victory in their regional opener. The Cardinals (46-15) will face Kansas (35-24) Saturday at 5 p.m., after the University of Kentucky and Kent State meet in the loser’s bracket.
After allowing two of the first three batters he faced to reach base, Funkhouser allowed only one more batter to reach until the eighth inning — and no one in the fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh.
U of L coach Dan McDonnell, who was questioned by some on using his ace in Game 1 with a potential matchup against rival Kentucky, and its top pitcher A.J. Reed in Game 2, got just what he wanted from his steady starter: A performance that set the tone.
In addition to extending his school record for victories to 13 games, Funkhouser lowered his season ERA to 1.68 overall. In his past seven starts he has six wins with an 0.37 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 48.1 innings pitched.
“We’ve always kept our No. 1 guy in that slot, and he sets the tone of the weekend,” McDonnell said. “Kyle Funkhouser is the cowbell pitcher. You put the bell around his neck and all the rest of them follow his lead. . . . That Friday guy that sets the tone. If you want to have a great pitching staff, you’ve got to have great Friday guys.”
The Cardinals jumped on Kent State for two runs in the first — aided by a KSU error — then added another in the second and two more in the third. Only two of the five runs were earned, but it was more than enough for Funkhouser.
He retired 15 straight at one point and 21 out of 22 after allowing his second baserunner in the first inning. He struck out 10 with one walk in the game.
When asked if it was his best pitching performance, he said, without hesitation, “Yes. Just the size of it, with the playoffs. I might’ve had numbers that were more gaudy, but in a big game, that was as good as I’ve had.”
Humming along in the seventh inning, Funkhouser even shook off a sign because he didn’t like the pitch. That’s a guy who is confident in his command.
“It’s just been fun to watch him get better as the year has gone on,” McDonnel said. “It was a goal of his. Losing your weekend rotation from a team that goes to Omaha, is a big deal. . . . But you could tell, this was a mission of his to be the Friday night guy here. It’s a big leadership role to take on, and to his credit, he has been able to rise to that level.”
The Cards got a pair of doubles from Zach Lucas and a couple of runs batted in from Corey Ray.
“It was a long day for everybody, obviously with the rain delays, so I was just really pleased,” McDonnell said. “I thought our guys kept their focus. They showed their maturity, their discipline. The goal was to win the first inning, Funk set the tone, attacked the strike zone, and it wasn’t our best offensive night but we had some things go our way.”
The Cards, who came into the NCAA Tournament ranked second in the nation in stolen bases, manufactured their early runs, and stole second successfully on all four of their attempts for the game. Kent State head coach Jeff Duncan credited the Cards with, “speeding us up. They played some small ball, and it really took us several innings to adjust to what they were doing.”
Now, U of L gets Kansas. The Cardinals will start right-hander Anthony Kidston against the Jayhawks. The sophomore is 12-0 in 17 college starts, with an ERA of 3.40 in 55 2/3 innings pitched this season. He worked seven innings against Rutgers in the American Athletic Conference Tournament, allowing just one earned run on four hits with seven strikeouts.
McDonnell was less familiar with the Jayhawks coming into the tournament than any other team, but one image has stuck with him.
“When I went on their website and saw them jumping around in the locker room it reminded me of ’07 and our team,” McDonnell said. “. … I know that’s a dangerous combination, talent and excitement. They’re not putting pressure on themselves, they’re not looking ahead to the next game, and you know they’re good or they wouldn’t be here.”
— U of L is 39-0 this season when leading after the eighth inning and has won 94 straight games when entering the ninth with the lead going back to May of 2012.
— U of L is 35-2 this season when outhitting its opponents and 10-11 when it doesn’t.
— U of L improved to 36-0 this season when scoring five runs or more, and has won 51 straight dating back to last season when scoring five or better.
— The Cards won for the 16th time in 25 games against a left-handed starter.
— In three previous NCAA regionals at Jim Patterson Stadium, the Cardinals have started 2-0 each time. The Cardinals are 9-3 at home in regional play.