LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Michael McAvene is out. He escaped from NCAA exile as the dog pile began, emerging from the Louisville clubhouse, down the walkway to the Cardinals’ dugout, streaking out onto the field in a red-and-black camo shirt, his number “41” in masking tape on the back.
The still photos, frame by frame, show him piling on with his teammates, looking for somebody to hug, and finding everybody.
As he prepares to open College World Series play in Omaha, Neb., with his teammates against Vanderbilt (Sunday, 2 p.m., ESPN), McAvene talked about his experiences of the past couple of weeks.
In general, a guy who has gotten himself ejected from a save situation in an NCAA Regional baseball game and suspended for four days after that wouldn’t generate this kind of sympathy or support.
But McAvene, who has emerged as Louisville's closer, was the victim of some pretty egregious NCAA overkill, and that after some iffy judgment on an umpire’s part. There are guys who fight or inflict physical harm on competitors who don’t draw that kind of suspension.
He did say, “That’s horrible,” after not getting a strike call on a 3-1 pitch against Indiana in a tight game. There’s no denying that, and McAvene doesn’t deny it. He said it, though, he says, not as a statement to the umpire but a very costly case of thinking out loud. Either way, home plate umpire Ken Langford didn’t like it, and ejected McAvene.
“Right away, I was completely in shock,” McAvene said. “I didn’t think I had said anything directed at him that would have warranted something like that. I don’t know if he thought I had said something differently, but it completely caught me by surprise in the moment, especially where we were in the game.”
On top of that, the ejection carried a four-game suspension. NCAA rules stipulate that McAvene couldn’t even be in the stadium for those four games, so he had to watch from deep in the Louisville clubhouse, or upstairs through a window in the building that houses the clubhouse, which doubles as a medical facility. One game, he watched from a parking lot with his family, though he could see very little of the game because of media tents erected for the tournament.
What he could see was the support that flowed to him, from social media, from a “Free Mike” sign a Louisville student hung on the overpass that overlooks center field in Jim Patterson Stadium, from the “That’s horrible” T-shirts that sprang up.
“It’s awesome. You know, the media world, it can be a good and a bad thing,” McAvene said. “But to have that support and see people behind me in that situation, it’s humbling, to say the least.”
Sitting through that situation is not a new experience for McAvene. He was injured two years ago when Louisville made a run to the College World Series. He was on the team, but not on the active roster. So those games, he watched from the stands.
Now that he’s back with his teammates and getting ready to see actual action in Omaha, he’s not taking it for granted.
“It’s something I’m going to cherish,” he said. “It’s nice to have that weight off my shoulders and know that I get to go out there with the team this next week and go through all the pregame activities. I know that when it’s my time to be called I’ll be ready for it.”
After McAvene’s ejection, the Louisville baseball team became a steamroller. They’ve won their four NCAA Tournament games since then by a combined score of 41-6. Only one of them presented a save situation.
Did his ejection give the team an edge? Maybe. It wasn’t a good thing, but maybe the team made the most of it.
“I’ve thought about that,” McAvene said. “But I don’t think it had just to do with me, I think it had to do with the way that whole game unfolded. But I think it did light a fire to have that close of a game (after building a big lead) and being that close to seeing the season end. I think something finally clicked and we wanted to make sure that we didn’t leave it to chance after that.”
Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said he thought McAvene handled the unusual situation well in its aftermath. He came to McDonnell and apologized, and apologized to his teammates.
They didn’t see it as a situation in which an apology was required. They hung his jersey in the dugout and rallied around him.
“He’s a big part of this team,” pitcher Nick Bennett said. “It was important to have his jersey in that dugout.”
“He handled it like a champ,’ McDonnell said. “As his head coach, you’re so proud of him. It dawned on me, I think he’s our highest GPA on the team, and each year in Omaha they give an award to the highest GPA athlete on each team, and it’s a reminder that this is a good kid, a good student. You saw how the team and fans rallied around him, but he didn’t make it about himself. He knew his job was to encourage and support his teammates, and we’re glad to have him back. We talk about all the time about how you have to step up and handle adversity, and that was adversity for our pitching staff and our program, and the guys definitely rallied around him and each other.”
It has been a whirlwind couple of weeks for McAvene. He threw his first 100 mph pitch in competition to close out Louisville’s regional-opener against Illinois Chicago. He was pitching his best of the season. Two days later he’s being ejected. Four days later, he was drafted in the fourth round by the Chicago Cubs. Then he sat through Louisville’s Super Regional win.
Now he’s heading to Omaha. It’s a lot to process.
“When everything happens, I give myself six, seven, eight hours to be high or low from it, then I clear it from my mind so I can focus on the main thing, which is going out, doing my job and helping this team accomplish what it wants to do,” he said.
Still, he’ll probably never view the words, “That’s horrible” in the same way again. It didn’t take teammates long to start needling him. He hears them everywhere. It’s part rallying cry, part running joke. McAvene just laughs.
“It was never that sensitive of a subject to me,” he said. “I’ve heard it from family, I’ve heard it from my friends. I’ve heard it from my teammates. It’s something that they’ve consistently said here recently. It’s something I’ve just been able to embrace.”
Fortunately for McAvene, this week, he can embrace it in Omaha.
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