Road To Omaha: Louisville Poised For A Run

Stockpiled with pitchers, and behind unwavering program support, Louisville enters 2013 ready to cement their place among the nation's elite baseball programs.

Louisville skipper Dan McDonnell says there are two types of Louisville fans: those that traveled with the program to Omaha in 2007, and those that hear from those that went to Omaha. If 2013 shapes up as expected, Cardinal Nation will have another chance to root on their boys in the College World Series.

After their 2012 season ended to eventual national champion Arizona in the Tucson Regional, Louisville enters the 2013 season with an embarrassment of riches, ready to finish its season in Omaha.

McDonnell will head a veteran club that returns it top seven 2012 hitters, eight positional starters from a team that scored 6.7 runs a game, batted .295, slugged .405 and stole 96 bases. On the mound, the expected weekend rotation of Chad Green, Jared Ruxer and Jeff Thompson combined to win 22 games a year ago. That figure represents the nation's second-highest total among projected weekend arms, without Justin Amlung, a 2012 All-American that went 9-4 with a 2.31 prior to being drafted in the 12th round by the Chicago Cubs.

All of that is supplemented by support from an administration and athletic department ready and willing to do whatever it takes to compete and be among the nation's best.

"Our Athletic Director Tom Jurich was walking through our Jim Patterson Stadium, which just went through $4.5 million worth of renovations," McDonnell said. "He looks at me and asks, ‘ok, what's the next project, what's the next thing we need to do?'"

Alluding to a desire to build a pitcher-only facility beyond the right-field fence, McDonnell says within three days he had an administrator in his office talking about the project.

And with that, one could say Louisville is in the midst of an arms race.

The 2013 Cardinals are going to be powered by a presence on the mound that will have them in every contest this season. Going forward, Louisville has a staff, athletic department and community that will back and support every more to ensure the Cardinals stay with the nation's elite.

But first things first, the Cardinals need to make sure those fans that have heard of the program's lone trip to the College World Series have a chance to travel to Omaha, and this team appears on that track.

Louisville will feature a 1-2 punch in Green and Thompson, both of whom enter their junior seasons among the top nation's top 200 draft prospects. Right-handed pitchers that check in respectively at 6'4'' and 6'6'', both are imposing figures that can rack up strikeouts. Green struck out 42 in 46.2 innings with a 2.70 ERA while Thompson K'd 73 over 78.2 innings alongside an even 4.00 ERA. Not to be forgotten is Ruxer, a likely top 100 draft prospect in his own right, though teams will have to wait until 2014. The right-handed pitcher enters his sophomore season following a 8-3, 3.38, 14-start collegiate debut.

And it doesn't stop there.

Junior right-handed pitcher Dace Kime is projected to be selected in the draft's first 10 rounds. A pitcher that McDonnell says will pitch whenever the team needs, after seeing time as a starter in 2011, Kime worked exclusive out of the bullpen in 2012, compiling 40.2 innings over 27 games as he struck out 42 and held the opposition to a .229 average.

Four arms that any program would take and likely find in their rotation, the quartet doesn't even possess the team's most talented, highest-ceiling arm, sophomore Nick Burdi.

Burdi's 2012 numbers may look pedestrian – 1-2 with a 5.56 ERA, 10 walks, 14 strikeouts in 22.2 innings – but there are three digits that will cause the opposition to take notice: 101. During a summer in the Cape with the Chatham Anglers, and throughout fall practice, Burdi routinely hit 101 on radar guns as the 6'4'' flamethrower established himself as a top 2014 draft prospect.

Providing depth in the bullpen will be junior left-handed pitcher Cole Sturgeon who carried a 3.60 ERA over 20.0 innings, striking out 21 in 2012; sophomore southpaw Joe Filomen (4.38 ERA, 12.1 innings, 21 strike-outs); junior left-handed pitcher Cody Ege, (6.00 ERA, 15.0 innings, 16 strike-outs) and a pair of highly-touted right-handed pitchers in Kyle Funkhouser and Anthony Kidston.

Power arms, imposing figures, experience and depth, what Louisville has on the mound is enough to consider them for top-25 consideration. Combine the prowess on the mound with their attack at the plate and one has a program worth of hosting a Regional and going beyond.

But if the Cardinals are to return to Omaha, the team they field will do so in a different offensive fashion.

"With the changes in 2011 we need to change," McDonnell, in his seventh season, said. "We were an American League three-run home style, but now we're more of a National League team which we need to be with the BBCOR."

McDonnell credits assistant coach Chris Lemonis for re-shaping the program through recruiting and as their hitting coach. From top to bottom the Cardinals will be able to trot out a lineup that can do it all.

McDonnell calls center fielder Adam Engel one of college baseball's most dynamic players, an 80 runner that sets the table. In 2012, he had a .308 average and was 37-39 in stolen bases, while providing plus defense. With Ty Young (.344-6-42), Nick Ratajczak (.343/.463/.396), Cole Sturgeon (.321/.400/.430), Jeff Gardner (.299-2-34) and Zak Wasserman (.297-6-27), behind Engel is a lineup of players that can get on, move over and in. Juniors Alex Chittenden and Kyle Gibson respectively started 36 and 43 games while carrying .303 and .285 averages.

If the Cardinals will have pitching to keep them in every game, they have the bats to win those contests. But there is one area that McDonnell says he needs to sell his team on.

"To get to Omaha and win a national championship we're going to have to defend," said McDonnell, who sees an athletic and strong up-the-middle team. "We saw Arizona in person, and yes their offensive was very impressive, they pitched great but people didn't talk about how great their defense was."

That McDonnell can speak to his club about what it will take to win a national championship would not be possible without the support the program has.

"It starts at the top with our athletic director Tom Jurich," McDonnell said.

The Cardinals' home, Jim Patterson Stadium, underwent expansion that increased capacity to 4,000 and added a visitor's locker room.

"We get great support and the expectation is to be a top-20 program, to compete to go to Omaha and win a national championship," McDonnell said. "When your administration gives you that support and has that expectation it is fun."

In the previous six seasons under McDonnell, Louisville has compiled a resume that has moved the Cardinals into the discussion when speaking of the top programs around the country; hosting two NCAA Regionals (2009, 2010), hosting a Super Regional (2007) and a trip to the College World Series (2007). Now the program has an accolade that McDonnell feels is a culmination of where the program is, a No. 4 preseason ranking by Baseball America.

"It matters a lot," said McDonnell, who enters 2013 with a 258-128 record at Louisville. "It's a sign of where your program is at. When they're doing the preseason rankings it's based on the history of your program, the talent level you have, the amount of high-profile guys you have."

That recent history of the program, the talent level and the high-profile players could not have compiled without the efforts at McDonnell's side in Lemonis and pitching coach Roger Williams, a pair of assistants regarding as the nation's best.

"Chris and Roger get so much of the credit because day-in and day-out they're recruiting, relentlessly working and are great coaches between the lines," McDonnell said. "Chris gets the most out of hitters, Roger the pitchers. They develop players and the baseball world sees what they're doing."

Though he feels he will lose them both one day to a head coaching position, that neither have left for a lateral move shows the commitment behind the Cardinals, and what the program is doing.

"This (ranking) was one of those culminations where we've been here six years, we've done some neat things, and we're very consistent," McDonnell said.

That consistency, along with the coaches, facilities, talent and recruiting, Louisville has all the necessary parts to be considered an elite program as they race to the top of the college baseball world.

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