LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – University of Louisville baseball coach Dan McDonnell sat down with reporters Thursday to talk about Friday’s NCAA Super Regional opener against East Carolina (noon, Jim Patterson Stadium, ESPNU).
The following is a transcript, beginning with an opening statement from McDonnell:
OPENING STATEMENT: This is an exciting time of the year. When the season starts, boy you hope you can make it to this point in the season and be one of 16 teams playing. I’m just really proud of this group. Excited that we get to play this weekend, that we get to play at Jim Patterson Stadium. We’re really happy for our fans, and of course all you media. And we know we’re playing a really good East Carolina team. They’ve won a lot of games under Cliff Godwin, and I’m sure they expected to be here as well. It’s not a surprise who we’re playing against, and it should be a great weekend of baseball.
Q: What’s the deal with the hockey puck in the dugout?
McDONNELL: We’ve got a lot of Midwest hockey fans, and you know, back when we had (Brendan) McKay, he was a big Penguins fan. And our friend Dr. Elko is a big Penguins fan. So we just talked about playoff hockey a few years ago, and you know, how many Game 7s there are and how many times your back is against the wall and how it’s a new season. That’s the great thing about the postseason. It doesn’t matter what your batting average is, what your stats are. You can’t carry that with you. It’s a new season. And we were, in our Game 7s once we lost, we were 1-1 and realized we had to win three games, all the kids just started talking about playoff hockey, playoff hockey. I’d had the puck since last year. And they hang up a Blackhawks jersey in the dugout. Being from New York, I grew up an Islanders fan back in the 80s, when they won four Stanley Cups in a row. And all my buddies were Ranger fans. So I was in the South for 18 years, in South Carolina and Mississippi, and I lost my following of hockey. When I got back here, all these kids from Chicago and Minnesota and Wisconsin and Michigan, they were all talking hockey talk, so it kind of brought my attention back to it, and it’s something we have fun with.
Q: What do you know about Coach Godwin and ECU baseball?
McDONNELL: I know a lot about them, because I’ve followed his career, and we have a lot of mutual friends and a ton of respect for each other. And of course, he coached with a guy that I love in Mike Bianco. So we both come from the same system, and I’ve always just loved his energy, his enthusiasm, loved what he did for Ole Miss and Mike Bianco and that staff. And I knew when he got the East Carolina job that he was going to do great there. And I like that he’s kind of showed his loyalty there. I’m sure his name comes up, you know, every year, with some of these so-called bigger jobs if people think that. But he knows he has a real special thing there at East Carolina. So I’ve respected and admired that you could tell his heart and his soul is in that program, and helping that program do special things.
Q: What has it been about East Carolina? They’ve got an impressive record, have had a really good RPI all year, have had some really big wins, what do you see in them?
McDONNELL: Yeah. No fear. Great schedule. They play at Mississippi State, they play at Ole Miss, they play UCLA. They play the North Carolinas and the N.C. States and just about any Power 5 school they can get to. And they play in a really good baseball league, you know. We’re familiar with the school. We used to be in the same league with some of the schools whether it was the Big East or the AAC. You feel like they’ve played great competition. Their numbers warrant all the attention that they’re getting. Otherwise they wouldn’t be here.
Q: Logan Wyatt was your highest drafted player, yet did his patience hurt his draft stock, not having higher power numbers? Is that a legitimate question?
McDONNELL: I don’t know. Pro baseball, they do a great job at evaluating talent, especially college talent, where they get to see them on the big stage. And one thing they’ve always talked about is that power comes. He’s got power. They’ve seen it. Right now, his swing is just a little more geared towards, you know, we don’t play in a small, homer-friendly ballpark. We play in a very respectable size park. And I’m sure at times he’s probably been a little too patient. But I also don’t want to say it hurt his draft stock, because this is a kid who was undrafted three years ago, and they didn’t even know who he was. And he’s going to sign for seven figures and be a second-round draft pick. That’s pretty darn good. And I think he’s going to have a phenomenal pro career. I just think, from my understanding, I’d rather have guys that can flat out hit, that can understand the strike zone. We can teach a little more loft, we can get him to be a little more aggressive. There’s things that they’re going to be able to do with him. You can’t teach guys how to hit. And this dude can flat out hit. And he’s not just standing up there with an aluminum bat just free swinging and taking advantage of the wind blowing out or small ballparks. He has a real professional eye and understanding of the strike zone. So I think offensively his game’s going to translate great at the next level. And then I don’t ever look down on the defense. He’s a phenomenal first baseman. He’s a guy that they’ll probably tinker with at third base and see if he can play over there. So I’m anxious and excited for him just to see how his pro career goes.
Q: When you say he’s too patient at times, what situations do you want him to be more aggressive?
McDONNELL: Probably, there have been a few times, where there has been a runner on third and he could probably extend the strike zone a little bit and just hit a ground ball to short. We always call that, when you hit a ground ball let’s say to second or short, and the run scores and they throw you out at first, we call that a solo jack. It doesn’t feel as good as a solo jack. The kids would rather have a solo jack. But it’s an RBI. It’s the same. So I’ve put my arm around him a few times and just challenged him to be a little more aggressive. Sometimes we say, in the right way, be a little more greedy. Grab an RBI here or there. We don’t need you to walk. You go back to the "Bad News Bears," where what’s his name was just swinging; we don’t need him to walk, man. If they’re trying to intentionally walk, you swing and put it in play. We need an extra base hit or something. But, like I said, I don’t fault him. That’s his approach, it’s who he is, and we’re looking at a really nice career.
Q: Since Jake got here he’s had some big hits in the postseason. In 2017, could you tell he was a kid who wasn’t afraid of the spotlight?
McDONNELL: Someone just told me his postseason batting average. Through these interviews, there’s things that I learn about the players that I didn’t even know about. I found out about his postseason numbers, and I think the reason is that he has a great swing. There’s something about guys like he and Oriente, who have great swings, their game translates to the postseason. Because even though the pitching gets a little better and the magnitude and the pressure gets a little higher, guys who just have really good swings can handle that. When I found out that he and Oriente have great postseason numbers, it probably goes back to if you just watch us take BP and sometimes we chart BP, those two could have the highest batting average in BP. Just fundamentally sound. Mechanically it works. So they might not put up gaudy home run numbers, but they don’t swing and miss a ton. They’re just really good hitters. So it doesn’t really surprise me that he’s able to perform when the pressure builds. We’re big on fundamentals and muscle memory. If you’ve got good muscle memory habits, then hopefully when there’s 4,000 people in the stands and the game’s on national television, then it kind of works.
Q: What kind of reset does this give your bullpen and how do you see thing shaking out for this series.
McDONNELL: I think because it was a long weekend – we played five games in four days – I’m glad we’re playing on Friday. We had a long break after the ACC Tournament. And I thought we tried to keep them at game speed and had controlled scrimmages and did some things during the week, I just thought those first two games of the regionals we weren’t at game speed. So when we found out we had a Friday, Saturday, Sunday series, a part of you wishes you had until Saturday – I’m sure East Carolina thought that too; they had two games on Monday – but we played midweek games all year and sometimes playing is better than practicing, especially for the kids. Playing five games last weekend, I kind of see it as an advantage, going into Monday afternoon and turning around and playing on Friday, I think everybody’s had just enough rest and is ready to go.
Q: Will you go with Reid on Friday?
McDONNELL: Yeah. We'll go with Detmers. And just take it one game at a time from there. That’s the nice thing, with Reid and Bobby and Nick, three really good arms that have all thrown in different spots. You feel good when you’ve got three starters like that. So we’ll start out with Reid.
Q: Their Friday starter was AAC co-pitcher of the year. What have you seen from him?
McDONNELL: We’re used to getting these pitchers of the year. We just had four in our regional this past weekend. Similar to Reid, it’s a big breaking ball. Man, he throws it for a freeze-you strike. He probably bounces his more a little than Reid and gets more swing and misses. But, you know, you’re left-handed and you throw 90-plus and you throw a breaking ball for a strike and one that you can bounce, there’s a reason he’s had great numbers in a great league. And it’s a big part of a reason why his team is where they’re at. You’ve got to have those horses and those count-on guys, and he’s been phenomenal for them this year.
Q: Have you had any conversation with the NCAA about the McAvene suspension?
McDONNELL: No, I haven’t had conversation. I know behind the scenes I’m sure our people have done their due diligence. I don’t know if I’m optimistic. But you know, I do think what will come out of this is maybe the rule could change in the future, maybe bringing attention to a reliever getting a four-game suspension. I’m sure they’ve got their own procedure in place as to how to better handle this situation in the future. I don’t coach umpires, so I’m not going to now. But I’m sure they’ll have their own system in place. It’s unfortunate. But I’m really proud of our kids that they didn’t make excuses and just kept competing. And Michael’s handled it very well. He was a third-round pick and that was great. He’s in a good place and he’s throwing well. We obviously hope we can get the ball to him again at some point. If anything, he’s become a local star here in Louisville. There’s a lot of people who know about him, and it’s been neat just to see the rally calls for him, how much the fans are supporting him and cheering him on and hoping he gets a chance to run back out there.
Q: When you talked to him about it, what has he said?
McDONNELL: Michael, when it happened that night, you know, he came to our office. He was apologetic. But he was also, you know, dumbfounded that it happened. I just told him, ‘Hey man, I’m sorry. I didn’t think it was that bad, what you did in the heat of the moment and don’t worry about it.’ I said it last week, competition brings out the very best and the very worst in people. And I steal that from Pat Riley’s book, years ago. ... But if that’s Michael McAvene’s worst, he’s going to be OK. Because that wasn’t that bad.
Q: On the roster, obviously you want him on there. Do you do that for the whole weekend, or can you add someone else?
McDONNELL: Tonight we hand in our 27-man roster for the weekend. And he’ll be on it. I say hopefully he pitches. Hey, if we get to play three games in this series, I think that’s great. These games are fun, so I hope he gets to pitch.
Q: How concerned are you about a letdown after the way things ended Monday?
McDONNELL: I’m not worried about a letdown. This time of year, to be playing, there’s no letdown. I’d be shocked if any of the 16 teams had a letdown. Doesn’t mean they’ll all play great. But we’re not going to worry about a letdown. This is what these kids work for. I’m going to enjoy it. I hope they enjoy it.
Q: Zack was just saying that the players talk among themselves about being your best team that you’ve ever coached. Have you heard that from them?
McDONNELL: I do hear it. They’re bold about it. I think it’s one of the neat challenges that kids have. You’re coming to a program where the bar is set very high and there’s been a lot of success and it’s just kind of been a thing in our program from the teams that have lost in Omaha. I think the ’07 team, obviously that team is still thrown in everybody’s face – for the right reasons. I think when ’13 made that run and made it to Omaha they wanted to know was ’13 the best team. And then in ’14 when we got eliminated, and then in ’17 when we were driving back to the hotel and Logan Taylor got up in the back of the bus and everybody’s down and the season’s over and said, ‘Coach Mac, is this the best team you’ve ever coached?’ It’s just kind of a challenge that these kids take on. And it’s not easy to be the best team I’ve ever coached. But I enjoy that they’re bold and it’s something they’re chasing. Because they know when we recruit them and they show up and they see all the pictures of the teams that have gone to Omaha and the teams that have won championships, I mean, right now, they won the regular season, they won a regional, and they’re thinking, ‘Man we’re not that far off. Why can’t we be the best?’ I embrace that, because all the time we talk about no fear and be bold. You don’t get to the top of the mountain by accident. These kids haven’t won this much by accident. There’s a lot of commitment that’s gone in place for them to be where they’re at. So I just embrace that.
Q: What about last weekend really surprised you about your team’s response after losing a game?
McDONNELL: Well you’ve never been there. And until you’ve been there you really don’t know how it’s going to go out. As soon as it happened, we talked about the ’07 team. Like I said, I throw that team in everybody’s face, because they were the first. But they lost the 1-0, 1-0 game. And you immediately address it, and say it’s been done before. Then you say look at all these other No. 1 seeds that have lost. You just try to get them to believe, and they did it. And for that, they deserve the credit. That’s what you love about this game, but it gives you opportunities to do special things.
Q: Oddsmakers have you 12-1 to win it all. Are you better than that?
McDONNELL: I’m not a betting person, and my buddies know this, because I hate to lose. So I’m not a betting person. I’m not really good with odds, even though I got a degree in mathematics and I play with the numbers, I don’t get involved with that stuff. Even if I go to the track, I’m just going with the number of the horse or the color of the, what is it called? I don’t even want to say, I don’t even know. I’m just goofing around. Because I’m competitive to a fault and I don’t like losing.
Q: Who should be the favorite?
McDONNELL: (Laughs.) One of these 16 teams. I don’t know. I think, you know, we all have a place.
Q: ECU is a team, you talk about redemption and toughness, they had to do the same thing in their regional. What’s it say about their character that they were able to win four straight?
McDONNELL: Just two similar programs. Both had great regular seasons. Both have conference pitchers of the year. Both have really good hitters. Both had guys getting their name called in the draft. And both have taken a similar path to get here. I just see a lot of similarities. I’ve got a lot of respect for them. But again, this time of year, you just can’t back your way into this. When it’s double-elimination, you get to 16, it’s not easy. So I’m super excited to play somebody really good, like us.
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