CRAWFORD | Four things to watch from Louisville in the ACC Tournament
Eric Crawford takes an early look at Louisville as it prepares for Thursday's ACC Tournament opener at Louisville Slugger Field.
Monday, May 22nd 2017, 4:49 pm EDT by
Monday, May 22nd 2017, 5:05 pm EDT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Playing postseason games at home is nothing new for the University of Louisville baseball program, which has played host to nine NCAA regionals in the past 10 years and three straight NCAA Super Regionals.
But an ACC Tournament in your hometown isn’t an easy feat. The ACC Tournament has been held in North Carolina in each of the past eight seasons,, and only left the state this year when the league pulled its championship events from the state in protest of House Bill 2, a piece of legislation it viewed as discriminatory and counter to league policy. A portion of the law regarding bathroom use based on birth gender was repealed on March 30, leading the league to bring its championships back into the state moving forward.
So this week’s ACC Tournament in Louisville Slugger Field is a rare chance for the Cardinals to play at home, before an expected regional tournament in Jim Patterson Stadium on campus. The Cards played once in the regular season in the downtown facility, beating Northern Kentucky 6-4 on April 26.
More important, perhaps, than familiarity with the facility is a reprieve from the usual spate of late-season travel, and a new pod format for the expanded tournament means the Cards won’t play until Thursday, when they open against Notre Dame at 7 p.m.
Still, there are other storylines for the Cardinals as they enter postseason play. A look at some of the more important things to watch:
1). THEIR HEADS. Weekend before last, the Cards were a blistering 46-6, riding a 12-game winning streak as the hottest team in college baseball. Then they lost a midweek game at Indiana, then dropped two in a row at home to Florida State before the final game of the regular season was rained out.
It was the first conference series the Cards had dropped at home since entering the ACC three seasons ago, and the first conference series they lost all season. It also snapped a streak of 33 straight weekend series the Cards had won, dating back to the 2013 season.
How the team will react to taking half as many losses as it had suffered all season in the span of eight days, and how it will do that on top of the residual angst over struggles in the ACC Tournament (1-2 the past two seasons) and home-field elimination losses in Super Regionals two straight years.
On Monday, Louisville coach Dan McDonnell didn’t sound concerned.
“You want to play good, and the bottom line is we just didn’t play good the last week – against good competition,” he said. “You learn an easy lesson. When you don’t play good against good people, they make you pay for it. We’ve done that to a lot of teams this year, and taken advantage of them having a hiccup. But we address, like we address the past few years not playing great in the ACC Tournament, and we hit the reset button and had a great week of practice and we played well in the regionals.”
Pitcher and first baseman Brendan McKay, who was named ACC Player of the Year on Monday, said that the streak should only motivate the team.
“I think maybe we were trying to do a little too much and not playing how we usually play,” McKay said. “But no concern at all. Every team has their little slip-ups. It’s at a good time where we get a good amount of rest and you let your body and mind refocus and get ready to play again when the time comes.”
2). THEIR HURLERS. Louisville ranks third in the NCAA in team earned run average at 2.76, and fourth nationally in walks plus hits per innings pitched (WHIP) at 1.15.
McKay, who will get the start in Thursday’s tournament opener against Notre Dame, is 8-3 with a 2.22 ERA and 116 strikeouts in 85 innings. Kade McClure is 7-2 with a 2.99 ERA with 83 strikeouts in 81 1/3 innings and Nick Bennett is 5-0 in 13 starts with an ERA of 2.47.
Closer Lincoln Henzman leads the nation with 16 saves.
“The initial plan is to go with the regular rotation, McKay on Thursday and then McClure on Friday,” McDonnell said. “But the pod play can call for some unique scenarios. Let’s see where we are Thursday, do our best and then after Thursday night’s game look and say, OK, what re the ‘if necessary’ situations. If we need to throw McClure, we throw him Friday. But if for some reason you didn’t need to throw him and you knew you were playing Saturday, then you could possibly save him. There’s a lot of scenarios that can play out.”
McDonnell said he likes the tournament having expanded to 12-teams.
“I think there’s a lot of positives to it,” McDonnell said. “I think to have a Florida State in the No. 8 spot, to have teams, N.C. State at seven, these are really good teams, NCAA teams. Last year North Carolina was 11, and they wouldn’t have been playing. But this year, if you’re 11 you’re playing and you’ve got life and hope. It was the right move by our league. These teams are too good, they deserve to be here. There’s going to be some scenarios where the higher seed has an edge to advance, but there’s some where teams got an opportunity to play and keep them going and sharp and get into the NCAA.”
3). THEIR HOT CORNER. In their their three losses to end the season, the Cardinals committed eight errors, with five of those coming at third base. McDonnell is constantly on his team to “play clean,” but chose to look at what happened in the Cardinals’ final games as a defensive lesson learned.
“From a statistical standpoint, defensively we just didn’t play great,” he said. “We’re on a four-game stretch where we definitely made more errors in those four games than we made in the length of 10-20 games for that time period (prior). And then you’ve got to get the two-out pitch or make the play to get off the field. And the combination is we haven’t played great defense and we haven’t been able to get off the field with two outs, whether that was a two-out error or giving up a hit with two outs, but the reason that guy came up was we made an error earlier in the inning, to give a good team a fourth out or even a fifth out. It’s stuff we talk about all year, we take a lot of pride in our defense, and I still believe this is one of the best defensive clubs I’ve ever coached, but they’ve been around enough to know that this is baseball. Sometimes you get some bad hops and bad breaks.”
4). THEIR HAIR. McKay took off his baseball cap Monday to reveal a new blonde ‘do. Devin Hairston said he’s thinking about what to do with his hair. College teams making team-wide statements in the postseason is all the rage in college baseball. Louisville is in the midst of a team makeover.
“I think it’s a majority of the team, a few guys might not want to do anything, it’s not an issue,” McKay said. “. . . A lot of guys get out of their comfort zone and get Mohawks or something different. A lot of guys are just saying, ‘Screw everything and have fun and play like we’re kids.’”
Jake Sparger has a red Mohawk. Ryan Summers, Tyler Fitzgerald and Colin Lyman are sporting mullets. And Devin Mann? He’s sporting cornrows.
That’s not a misprint.
“He kind of looks like Will Ferrell from ‘Get Hard,’” McKay said.
McDonnell hasn’t altered his hairstyle yet, but he’s not necessarily opposed to it.
“I always tell my war stories. I was a military school and the most we could do is flat-tops,” McDonnell said. “But anytime you do anything as a team, I just like that it shows unity and team spirit. . . . We’ve had teams dye their hair. One year we had red Mohawks. It’s just memories for these kids. . . . For me, I don’t know if I’ve been officially asked yet. They were joking around about a month ago and made a comment to me. I haven’t been officially asked, but there’s no way I’m doing a Mohawk.”
New look, new season, with the ACC Tournament set to begin.
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