CRAWFORD | Louisville baseball's ACC success is worth another lo - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Louisville baseball's ACC success is worth another look

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WDRB photo by Eric Crawford. WDRB photo by Eric Crawford.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — The University of Louisville baseball team was picked to finish third in the Atlantic Coast Conference in its first season. Instead, the Cardinals ran away with the Atlantic Division title and the ACC tournament's No. 1 overall seed.

After erasing a 5-0 deficit late to beat No. 7-ranked Florida State 6-5 on Sunday to win yet another ACC series, the No. 2 Cardinals find themselves far atop the standings -- but still with work left to do heading into the final week of the regular season.

Despite being ranked in the top five of most national college rankings, the NCAA's baseball version of the Rating Percentage Index ranks the Cards No. 9 in the nation, still well behind No. 3 Florida State and No. 4 Miami, though the Cards won series against both of those teams and have a 4-2 record against them. 

So there's still plenty to play for in the busy week to close the season -- against No. 7-ranked Vanderbilt at home Tuesday night, then a series beginning Friday at North Carolina State before next week's ACC Tournament. All three can add to U of L's NCAA-best total of 17 wins against the RPI top 50 (against only six losses).

“Conference titles are awesome, but we're searching for that bigger goal of competing for a national championship,” senior Zach Lucas said. “. . . There's a lot to play for. We want to hold the tradition and culture down for this program. It doesn't matter that we've already won a conference title, we've got to have good practices and come out and play well, because we're fighting for a top-eight national seed.”

Still, what the Cardinals (40-12, 23-4) have accomplished in ACC play, especially given their preseason expectations, is worth stopping for a minute to consider. They are 9-0 in ACC series, and have won 11 series in a row overall. From March 21 to April 10, the Cardinals played 83 consecutive innings against ACC competition without trailing.

And when they have trailed, they've responded. McDonnell knew there could be some ugly losses in ACC play. He talked about it to begin the season. But he has talked all season about coming back, absorbing the bad, getting over it, and making something good happen. His team responded.

Clemson beat the Cardinals 9-1 on Kentucky Derby day, but the Cards rallied to take the final two games of the series. Florida State beat the Cards as badly as they've been beaten all season to open last weekend's home series, but the Cards again bounced back to win two, including a stirring comeback after trailing 5-0 heading to the bottom of the sixth on Sunday.

“Toughness is something we've challenged them on all year,” U of L head coach Dan McDonnell said. “And we've shown that throughout the year; some of our road success, some of our home success, some of our come-from-behind wins. I think there's a mental toughness to our group. The culture has carried over the past couple of years. I give credit to the Cole Sturgeons and the guys before this group and I give credit to (Sutton) Whiting and the older guys here. And the younger guys have fallen in line. It's good to see, because something we challenged them all year was to make sure we're tough enough to compete in this league. Get beat up bad by a Clemson or a Florida State on Friday night, and you've got to bounce right back and be ready to play good baseball, and we've done that.”

Vanderbilt has become a rival of Louisville's, largely because the NCAA has a habit of throwing the teams together in the postseason. The Commodores came to Louisville twice for regional play, and U of L went to Nashville once for a Super Regional. They also met in the College World Series last year, an event Vanderbilt went on to win.

If Kentucky is the biggest rivalry for the fans, Lucas and Whiting said Vanderbilt may be the biggest for the players. The programs noticed the rivalry, and fashioned together a barrel to give to the winning team.

“They're right down the road, really, just two hours away, and we always seem to have good games,” Lucas said. “They have good pitching, we have good pitching. Two programs with really good players. . . . The fans may not feel it, but for us it's a rivalry right up there with Kentucky.”

First pitch will be at 6 p.m. at Jim Patterson Stadium. The Cards drew more than 12,000 to their three weekend home games and expect a good crowd for their final regular-season home game — though they have designs on being back at home for the NCAA Tournament.

“Last weekend is what college baseball is all about, why kids come to Louisville,” McDonnell said. “They work hard all summer and winter to play in games like that and weekend series like that. And all year in the ACC it's been like that. The weekend series at Clemson, the weekend series at Virginia, and of course these home weekends here versus Miami and Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. It's been a lot of fun. . . . Our kids like this, they like the good competition, and we told them last week, from here on out it's all NCAA Tournament competition.”

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