There have many constants for the University of Louisville baseball team this spring, including a pitching staff that ranks among the nation's best, rookies becoming impact players and veterans providing great leadership. Also a constant is the team's ability to overcome adversity to win over 20 games in come from behind fashion.
All were on display in the top-seeded Cardinals first game in the 2015 ACC Baseball Championships at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Facing a North Carolina team that won a Tuesday elimination game and in need of bolstering its post season resume, U of L faced a difficult task in the day two nightcap.
While their campus is just 20 minutes from the host stadium, the lower-seeded Tar Heels were the visiting team and grabbed the momentum immediately when Tyler Ramirez drove a Sean Leland pitch just over the right field wall. Following the solo shot, UNC loaded the bases with no outs, but a strike out and a pair of pop-ups ended the threat.
Leland's evening ended early after two additional runs were plated by UNC in the top of the third, with fellow freshman Lincoln Henzman taking the mound. A fielders choice allowed a third run across the plate in the inning, but it would be the last for the Tar Heels.
Henzman (5-1) allowed just three hits and struck out six in six shutout innings and picked up the win.
"Obviously we got off to a tough start there," said U of L head coach Dan McDonnell. "We knew North Carolina was going to play hard. They got the crowd into the game early and coming off a big win yesterday. I was really proud of our guys that we were able to keep our composure. It’s pretty impressive, even though one freshman had a tough night tonight. I’m sitting up here on stage with two other freshmen. So it shows our balance, our depth and our toughness."
After struggling to find a hit in the early innings, the game's momentum shifted in the Cardinals direction when Brendan McKay, who was named the ACC Freshman of the Year earlier this week, connected for a two-run home run over the right field wall in the fourth inning to trim the North Carolina lead in half.
McKay finished 4-for-4 at the plate with two RBI and a pair of runs. McKay has at least one hit in 21 of his last 24 games and has 14 multi-hit games, including six games with at least three hits.
"Somebody had to get something going for us positive and McKay’s two run homer just gave us life," said McDonnell. "The combination of the two run homer and Hentzman putting up some zeroes just kept us in the game where we didn’t have to panic, and as Brendan said, we had time, time to score runs."
U of L added another run in the fifth inning off an RBI double by Sutton Whiting. The Cardinals took control of the game on the strength of a four-run sixth inning that was highlighted by a three-run two-out rally to gain a three run lead.
Sophomore reliever Zack Burdi picked up his ninth save of the season by throwing a perfect ninth inning.
Following the loss, North Carolina head coach Mike Fox, who guided the Tar Heels to a 3-1 win over Louisville in the 2007 College World Series, heaped praise on the accomplishments of the Cardinals program.
"Before they got in the league, now, we faced them in the World Series," said Fox. "They weren’t chopped liver before they joined our league. They’re extremely well coached. Dan has done a terrific, terrific job. I think they put a lot of emphasis in their program and facility. They’ve got a great pitching coach in Roger, obviously. And they’ve recruited some really, really talented players. And I don’t know that anybody expected any body in our league, whether it’s a first year team or a team that’s been in the league for a hundred years, to go 25-5 in our league. That’s a tremendous accomplishment. Some of the best teams we’ve had in the ACC haven’t been able to do that, it’s quite impressive. You can see why. They play with some poise and some confidence and I don’t think they ever panicked when they got behind. Great club."
Up next for Louisville (43-14) is No.5 seed Clemson at 3 p.m. on Thursday afternoon.