Freshman Josh Rogers allowed only four hits while beating Kentucky Sunday.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The first day of June is no time to trust a freshman in college baseball.
If they’re on the mound, you wonder if they’ll revert to high school and try to throw a 250 mph fastball. If they’re in the batter’s box, you fear they’ll squeeze the bat even tighter and try to launch every pitch to Pluto.
Trust your seniors and juniors. They’re the guys who will get you to Omaha.
That’s not the way that Louisville coach Dan McDonnell fills out his lineup card. Hasn’t. Didn’t. Won’t.
Ask the University of Kentucky baseball team, the one that the Cardinals defeated, 4-1, Sunday night at Jim Patterson Stadium to win the NCAA Regional.
There was Josh Rogers, a left-handed pitcher from New Albany, who gave the Cards six shutout innings. He entered the game with two career victories and exited with his third. Freshman.
“Josh asked me before the game if I had any advice,” said Kyle Funkhouser, Louisville’s best pitcher. “I just told him, ‘Do what you do and fill up the strike zone.’
“He was a little weirded out before the game because he had faced Kentucky twice already, but he’s a different pitcher now than he was in the regular season.”
There was Nick Solak, an outfielder/designated hitter from suburban Chicago, who drove in Louisville’s first run and dropped a perfect bunt that led to the Cards’ second score. He hit third in McDonnell’s lineup. Freshman.
There was Corey Ray, a left-handed speedball who grew up 15 minutes from U.S. Cellular Field on the south side of Chicago, who doubled in Louisville’s fourth run. Made a great running catch in foul territory down the right field line for the first out in the bottom of the ninth. Freshman.
“You learn in this program to grow up real fast,” Ray said. “No matter what situation they put you in, when coach calls your name, you’ve got to be ready.”
“They’re all playing key roles,” Funkhouser said. “It’s good for our program now and in the future.”
Even Louisville senior Cole Sturgeon acknowledged the power of the youth movement. Sturgeon made two dynamic plays in the outfield – a difficult running catch near the fence and a catch-and-throw that retired UK’s Thomas Bernal at the plate. Sturgeon was voted the Most Outstanding Player in the regional.
McDonnell awards something the coach calls “The Shirt,” to the Louisville player who makes the key contribution in every victory. McDonnell gave The Shirt to Sturgeon Sunday – and Sturgeon immediately tossed it to Rogers.
That's leadership -- and recognizing what a poised performance Rogers delivered.
Add it up. Louisville won an NCAA Regional for the second consecutive season and the Cards also secured a spot as the host team against either Alabama or Kennesaw State next weekend in the Super Regional.
Two more wins and those three freshmen and their teammates are going to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
“When we saw Florida State was out, we got hyped,” Funkhouser said. “Now we just have to take care of business.”
Rogers is Example A of the attractive program that McDonnell has built at Third and Central. He set the school record for victories at New Albany High School and only threw four innings as a senior before he visited a surgeon in Cincinnati for Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow in April 2013.
Chris McIntyre, the coach at New Albany, said that more than a dozen scouts from major league teams visited Rogers in his home to discuss the idea of drafting him last June.
Rogers’ final two college choices were Louisville and Vanderbilt. Vandy is the program that produced Jeremy Sowers, David Price, Sonny Gray and Mike Manor, all pitchers who were first-round draft picks and made the big leagues. Sowers, Price and Manor were also left-handed.
Rogers preferred Louisville.
Rogers started against Kentucky on April 1. He lost. He started again against the Wildcats on April 15. He lost.
Rogers wanted the ball against the Wildcats again Sunday night. He delivered. Rogers faced 24 batters, allowed four hits, all singles. He struck out five. He did not walk anybody. He pitched his way on to the all-regional team with six of his teammates, including Ray.
With the assistance of his defense and some remarkably precise shifts to put more guys on the right side of the field, Rogers retired Max Kuhn and A.J. Reed, Kentucky’s two best hitters, six times in six at bats.
“My teammates were messing with me a whole lot before this game about my previous outings,” Rogers said.
“I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a pitcher from my first game until now. I’m just a different pitcher. I had a lot of confidence tonight.”
All of McDonnell’s freshmen had confidence – and now the Cardinals will try to win two more games and return to Omaha.