BOZICH | The Coach picks Louisville -- and gives 5 Keys to Kentu - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | The Coach picks Louisville -- and gives 5 Keys to Kentucky baseball series

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A coach whose team played Louisville and Kentucky gives the Cardinals a slight edge in the Super Regional, in part because of Brendan McKay. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photo.) A coach whose team played Louisville and Kentucky gives the Cardinals a slight edge in the Super Regional, in part because of Brendan McKay. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photo.)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – No sport has tilted toward analytics more than baseball. Moneyball has put numbers everywhere.

If you want to know somebody’s batting average during Tuesday night games against left-handed pitchers with two men on base and the wind blowing in on days when the hitter had a BLT for lunch, the numbers are available.

Call me Old School.

When it was time to analyze the NCAA Baseball Super Regional Kentucky and Louisville will play starting Friday afternoon at Jim Patterson Stadium, I did not look at numbers. I called The Coach.

The Coach has a name. But not for this story. For this story, he is simply The Coach. We agreed he could talk more forthrightly about the Cardinals and Wildcats if I did not mention his name.

The Coach knows both teams. His team played Louisville. His team also played Kentucky. The Coach believes this series will be fabulous, almost too tight to call.

“In my opinion, you’re talking about two of the five best teams in the country,” The Coach said. “It’s hard to pick one over the other because they’re both that good and that close in ability.”

According to The Coach, here are Five Keys to The UK/U of L Super Regional:

1. Louisville’s left-handed pitchers against Kentucky’s left-handed hitters.

The Cardinals’ ace is Brendan McKay, one of the best pitchers in the nation. He’s a veteran lefty, a strike thrower who understands how to change speeds and move hitters off the plate. U of L coach Dan McDonnell can also start another lefty, freshman Nick Bennett, along with Kade McClure, who throws right-handed.

“Having two lefties is an edge for Louisville because Kentucky is as strong as any team in the country from the left side of the plate,” The Coach said. “They can run five and sometimes six quality left-handed hitters at you.

“So it’s key that Louisville’s left-handed pitchers are at their best. They’ll need that.”

2. Kentucky’s Veteran Hitters.

I know I promised to keep numbers to a minimum, but this number is important. Kentucky ranks third nationally in on-base percentage. Wildcats hitters reach base in an astounding 42 percent of their at-bats.

“That’s the biggest improvement Kentucky has made as a group this season,” The Coach said. “Their coaching staff has really worked with those kids. They do not swing at balls out of the strike zone. They swing at strikes. They’ll take their walks.

“It doesn’t mean they’re not aggressive. If you throw a first-pitch fastball over the plate, they’ll pound it. You watch them play, that’s one thing that stands out, how disciplined their hitters are.”

3.  The Poise of Brendan McKay

Game One is not a mandatory win for the Cardinals. But it’s in the mandatory neighborhood.

They’re the home team but will switch to visitors for Game Two. If Louisville loses Game One, folks will ask more questions about what happened during the Super Regional losses in 2015 and 2016. You don’t want to lose when your starting pitcher (McKay) will be one of the first three picks in the Baseball Free Agent Draft next week.

“(Sean) Hjelle (Kentucky’s Friday pitcher) is outstanding,” The Coach said. “He was one of the best pitchers in the SEC. But McKay is special and he’s been through big moments like this before in the tournament. Hjelle hasn’t been.

“I’ve never seen McKay lose his poise, and that’s one thing that makes him such a great player. It’s doesn’t matter if there are 50 people watching or 5,000, he’s the same guy.

“If McKay pitches the way he’s capable of pitching, he’ll very hard to beat.”

4. The Paradox of Sean Hjelle

If McKay has poise, Hjelle has a different look than the Cardinals have seen. He is 6 feet 11. The textbook height of the best college pitchers is typically in the 6-2 to 6-5 range.

“It’s not that he throws hard,” The Coach said. “Most of the time, he’s in the 88-to-92 (mph) range. But when the pitcher is 6-11, it’s a totally different dynamic for the hitter.

“The ball comes in on more of a downhill plane. He looks like he’s right on top of you when he releases the ball, especially because Hjelle gets great extension with his arm. He might be throwing 92, but it looks like 96 or 97 to the hitter.”

5. Bullpen Brigade

Louisville closer Lincoln Henzman has been as efficient as any relief pitcher in college baseball this season. He is tied for the national lead in saves with 16.

Hitters have managed less than one hit every two innings against him. His 35 to 8, strikeout to walk ratio seems fabricated. It isn’t. And Henzman famously ended the Cards’ post-game press conference Sunday night by stating that this program would not lose in the Super Regional three straight seasons.

Logan Salow, Kentucky’s closer, has also been effective, earning a dozen saves. He’s been good, but not as dominant as Henzman.

“I’d give Louisville a slight edge in the bullpen,” The Coach said. “Especially at the very back end with Henzman. He’s been lights out. If Louisville can get the game to him, they’ve got to like their chances.”

And the winner is ...

"I've got to go with Louisville," The Coach said. "I like their left-handed pitching against Kentucky's left-handed hitters. They've got the best player in the country (McKay). They're playing at home. And they've been through this a few times."

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