BOZICH | Kyle Funkhouser has earned Friday night NCAA Tournament - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | Kyle Funkhouser has earned Friday night NCAA Tournament start for Louisville

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Kyle Funkhouser will return to his role as Friday night starter in the NCAA Tournament. Kyle Funkhouser will return to his role as Friday night starter in the NCAA Tournament.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- There are a million reasons that Dan McDonnell is worth $1 million as the University of Louisville baseball coach. Make certain you put this item high on the list:

The striking faith that McDonnell is demonstrating in Kyle Funkhouser, his senior pitcher, by starting him against Western Michigan in the Cardinals’ opening NCAA Baseball Regional game Friday evening at Jim Patterson Stadium.

Is there danger of being second-guessed here? You don’t have to be Tony LaRussa to understand that.

If Funkhouser wobbles, McDonnell will have to work his bullpen and risk seeing his team bounced into the losers’ bracket of a regional they are solid favorites to win.

Is there reward here? Consider it a super-sized value play.

If Funkhouser delivers, McDonnell will have his top two starters fresh and rested to close the regional Saturday and Sunday. And Funkhouser will have his funky assortment of right-handed pitchers percolating again.

But before you start a sports talk argument about tournament strategy stuff, remember this:

McDonnell is doing the right thing by demonstrating faith in Funkhouser, because Funkhouser demonstrated faith in himself, McDonnell and the U of L baseball program by returning for his senior season.

Funkhouser has earned this moment. He didn’t have to be here, remember.

He could have taken the signing bonus (reportedly between $1.75 and $2 million) and been pitching in the minor leagues for the Los Angeles Dodgers this spring, the way that Josh Rogers, the Cards’ former lefty, is pitching for the New York Yankees.

Funkhouser did not do that.

He did not do that because he was convinced that he could pitch his way to a better draft slot than 35th, which is where the Dodgers’ got him a year ago.

But Funkhouser also did not do that because he enjoys playing for McDonnell and pitching coach Roger Williams and with his U of L teammates.

He did the academic work he was supposed to do. You can find a picture of Funkhouser wearing his cap and gown while posing with his mother on his Twitter account, @K_Funk16. He earned a degree in finance with a grade point average better than 3.0.

He would prefer to put all this draft talk in the corner of the dugout for the next month and be a signature piece on the first Louisville team to win a regional, super regional and College World Series. 

“I’m honored (to start Friday),” Funkhouser said. “All in all, it’s been a really great experience. I’ve learned a lot from it. I’m really thankful that I came back.”

Make no mistake, Funkhouser lost money by doing it this way. The Dodgers would have given him at least $1.7 million last summer. This year the most optimistic predictions have Funkhouser being selected late in the third round where his signing bonus is likely to be about $1 million less.

But, as Funkhouser will tell you, baseball is a game of failure.  Although he will exit Louisville as the all-time leader in wins, strikeouts, innings and starts, he also has a Ph.D. in failure. It was only 15 months ago that he was pitching like one of the top five picks in America.

The scouting director for one major league team remembers precisely what he was told to watch for the first time this director visited Jim Patterson Stadium to watch Funkhouser’s powerful right-handed motion in March 2015.

“From how our scouts described him before I went in, he was exactly what we were looking for (as a first-round pick),” the scout said. “A major-league starter with three or four pitches. The body that could take innings, that kind of stuff.

“If the draft would have been in March of 2015, he would have been somebody’s dream guy. He was so hot last year.

“And then the red lights starting flashing.”

Velocity? Down. Hits? Up.

Control? Off. Concern that something was wrong? On.

“From what I understand, teams might have thought there was an injury,” Funkhouser said. “But there wasn’t.”

Some teams believed that. Others did not. His hits allowed per inning increased. His strikeouts decreased.

“He wasn’t holding his velocity late into games the way he was earlier in the season,” the scouting director said. “He backed off a little bit. He didn’t compete like I would have liked him to do.”

If Funkhouser needed more motivation for the next two, three or four weekends of his senior season, he can chew on that paragraph a few times. McDonnell made a masterful move by moving him from the Cardinals’ top Friday night starter to the third guy, who started on Sundays. Funkhouser has pitched better since that move.

“I needed to be moved,” he said. “I understand that. I just tried to take the Sunday job with as much energy and positivity as I could.”

Funkhouser has pitched some of his best baseball this season in his last three appearances, allowing six hits and four runs, with 19 strikeouts and four walks over 16 innings against North Carolina State, Wake Forest and Virginia, three NCAA Tournament teams.

But he’ll need to deliver this weekend and again in the super regional and possibly beyond to pitch his way back into a better draft position.

“It’s just one of those things where everything’s kind of falling into place at the right time,” Funkhouser said. “Which is good, kind of unlike last year. It’s a lot more easy to take every day …

“I feel great. Just a lot of hard work. Getting in the training room and working with the strength coaches. We tweaked some things from last year at this time. We’re going a little bit lighter. That’s kind of the name of the game right now, feel as good as you can the day you’re going to pitch.”

And the day Kyle Funkhouser is going to pitch is the day he deserves to pitch – the opening game of Louisville’s NCAA Tournament push.

Copyright 2016 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.

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