As Dan McDonnell and the Cardinals head into their 2009 season with a three-game series against the SEC's Gators that begins Friday at 6:30 pm, expectations couldn't be any higher. Louisville, which won the 2008 Big East Tournament title and advanced to the NCAA's Athens Regional last season, opens the new season as the overwhelming preseason pick to win the Big East Conference.
"Expectations are very high across the country and we're using that as a positive thing," McDonnell said. "Our goal is to be a Top 25 program and the hard work by everyone has put us in this position. Now we just have to go out there and play the game."
Coming off back-to-back 40-win seasons, the Cardinals returns a wealth of talent from last season's team, including the Sports News' preseason National Player of the Year Chris Dominquez, College Baseball News second team All-American pitcher Justin Marks and All-Big East preseason catcher Jeff Arnold.
"We have experience on the mound, in the field and at the plate," McDonnell said. "That's the reason expectations are so high. The sky's the limit with this group. I see these kids playing in Ohama. We've got to get some breaks and stay healthy but it's very doable with this group."
Justin Marks, with an 18-4 career record as a starter, will be on the mound to open the season Friday against Florida. Marks went 9-2 last season with a 2.37 ERA and 89 strikeouts in 91 innings.
"There's no better person to hand the ball to on a Friday night," said McDonnell. "He's had a lot of success and been very consistent. He gives you a chance to win every time he runs out there. He sets the tone for the entire pitching staff."
A 6-3, 195-pound junior from Owensboro, Ky., Marks was chosen as the Big East preseason Pitcher of the Year.
to open the season against Florida.
‘"He's very cool and calm and doesn't show much emotion," said McDonnell. "That's a gift he has. He can keep his nerves in check and go out there and make pitches when he has to."
Dean Kiekhefer, a 6-0, 160-pound lefty, will start on Saturday against the Gators with 6-5, 200 right-hander Matt Lea throwing on Sunday. "We're going left, left, right," McDonnell said.
Big things are expected from the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Dominguez, who plays third base. The reigning Big East Co-Player of the Year, Dominguez puts the pop into Louisville's lineup. He hit .365 last year with 21 home runs, 75 RBI and .687 slugging percentage.
"It's not about the numbers he puts up," McDonnell said. "It's what he does for our lineup. The great ones have the ability to have three, four, five good days in a row and before you know it it's two good weeks, then a month and then it's a good season. And that's Chris Dominguez."
Dominguez also made big strides in the field as a sophomore, committing only six errors in '08 while posting a .959 fielding percentage.
"Defensively he does not get the respect that I think he's earned," McDonnell said. "Any time you make single-digit errors in college baseball as an infielder I think that's a huge accomplishment. I think he has a chance to be a big league third baseman."
McDonnell isn't shying away from the preseason hype surrounding his team. Instead, he's hoping his club will use the confidence they gained at the end of last year to get off to a fast start this season.
"We want to win over 40 games," McDonnell said. "We want to win the Big East, play in the post-season and host a super regional and ultimately get to Omaha and win a national championship. But you've got win game one. We spend a lot of time talking to our kids about that."
"We haven't been great out of the gate the two previous years but we've finished very well," McDonnell added. "But we haven't been great out of the gate and that's been the message to the team. It's not easy when you open against a Top 25 program but it's a great challenge and the kids are well aware that we want to get off to a good start."
Louisville will have to overcome the loss of outfielder Stewart IJames, who is out with a season-ending shoulder injury. The Cardinals have to find a replacement for IJames' .351 batting average, eight home runs and 39 RBI.
"It hurts any time a bat like that is taken out of the lineup," McDonnell said. "But it gives such an opportunity to other guys. I hate it for Stewart and I feel he would have been a huge asset for our lineup but someone else has to take that opportunity and run with it. We have guys very capable."
McDonnell also feels good about his relief pitching with senior Gavin Logdson in middle relief and Tony Zych and Thomas Royce set as the closers.
"Right now there are no huge question marks," McDonnell said. "It's about the process. It's how we handle success and failure. Our season does not hinge on Friday night. That's my message to the kids."