LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — For the University of Louisville baseball team, this was going to have to be a different kind of season.

After the most dominant campaign in program history, led by college baseball’s best player three years’ running and one of the best players in the history of the college game, this wasn’t exactly a rebuilding year, but it was going to have to be a team that got better at the season rolled along.

After 31 games, the Cardinals were 20-11. They’ve averaged 50 wins over the past five seasons. This was a bit of a new feeling. But coach Dan McDonnell explained something to his players in the midst of that.

“We looked at the last three national champions and where they were 31 games in, and they were 19-12, 21-10 and 20-11,” McDonnell said Saturday after his team had beaten Pitt 5-2 to advance to its first ACC Tournament championship game. “And I remember telling our team, 'Guys, I believe we have a chance to win a national championship.' What I don't do, and I'm sorry for all those out there, I don't follow Twitter. I don't look at RPI. I don't care what other people think about us. I don't look at rankings. I know who we are.”

As the ACC Tournament draws to a close, it turns out the Cardinals look a lot like they always have. They’ve won 11 of their past 12 games and 15 of their past 18. They'll play for the tournament championship on Sunday at noon at Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, N.C.

On Saturday, sophomore Nick Bennett scattered four hits in six innings, gave up two runs and struck out seven to let the Louisville bats do their work. He improved to 8-1 on the season and did a masterful job keeping Pitt batters off balance.

 “He commanded multiple pitches for strikes early,” Panthers’ center fielder Nick Maldonado said. “We were trying to look at tendencies, but hats off to him for mixing pitches to where it was tough to find tendencies and figure out how we were going to go after him. Sometimes you just have to tip your cap. He got me on a back foot slider one at-bat. Sometimes when that pitch is there you just nod and walk back to the dugout. He did an unbelievable job.”

But of late, the bats have joined in making noise. In their past 16 games, they’ve failed to score at least five games only once, averaging 8.4 runs per game in that span.
Devin Mann had a triple, a two-run homer and three RBI to lead the Louisville offensive attack on Saturday. Josh Stowers went 2-for-4 with a double, an RBI and a run scored.

“Our sophomore hitters grew up a lot this year,” McDonnell said. “(Tyler) Fitzgerald and (Jake) Snyder and (Logan) Wyatt and (Justin) Lavey and (Danny) Oriente and (Drew) Campbell, that now I think Josh and Devin realize they don't have to do so much, that they're playing with other really good players, good hitters. They understand each other. So it's fun to see them not put so much pressure on themselves and just be who they are. That's what we've been saying a lot this week. Let's be who we are. Let's know who we are. And if that's not good enough, then that's fine, but we're going to enjoy being who we are, and we've been playing like this for about a month now.”

The Cardinals offensive confidence seems to grow by the game. And the result is that even after massive losses to the MLB Draft — eight players taken in each of the past two seasons — they sit at 43-16, with a good chance to play host to an NCAA regional when the tournament pairings are announced on Monday.

“One of our themes was I dare you,” McDonnell said. “I really threw it in their face at the start of the fall. Lots of times when I motivate the guys, I'm motivating myself as well. I did not want to make excuses this year. I did not want to cry the hey-we-lost-everybody-to-the-draft card. I knew we had talent. Yeah, we knew we would be a little young. But I wasn't going to stand on a podium and talk about how young we were. I just didn't think that was fair to this group. I wanted this group to know I believed in them, so I dared them. I dared them to keep it going. I won't read you our resume right now, but hopefully you know it over the past five or six years, and I dared this group to keep it going. And they did it in the classroom. We just finished our 14th straight semester, seven years consecutive, of a team GPA of over 3.0. These kids do well in the classroom, they do well in the community, and here we are, 43 wins and a chance to play another day before the NCAA starts.”

Copyright 2018 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.