Wednesday, May 30, 2007

NCAA Baseball Preview: Louisville

The 40-20 Louisville Cardinals are making their second ever trip to the NCAA Regionals. They’ll play Miami-FL Friday, 1pm, at Taylor Stadium. Here’s a link to their official website. The Cardinals put up some pretty dominating numbers in the Big East (not exactly a power conference in baseball, though they did manage to send three teams to the tourney this year), and whereas I assumed they didn’t have much of a chance against Miami-FL when the pairings were announced, I’m not quite as sure now.

Like Kent State, the Cards are led by their pitching. Like Kent State, only 4 of their 13 staff pitchers had an ERA over 4.00. However, their team ERA (2.89) and their main cogs are far superior to those of the Golden Flashes. Their ace, Friday starter Zack Pitts (8-3, 1.78 ERA), has put up sick numbers, and their Saturday starter, Justin Marks (7-2, 2.44 ERA), was the Big East rookie of the year. Meanwhile, closer Trystan Magnuson (3-1, 0.92 ERA, 8 Saves, 49 K’s, 8 BB’s in 40 IP) is automatic. However, they haven’t exactly faced a murderous schedule. They loaded up on cupcakes in their non-conference schedule (Missouri fans think Missouri’s schedule was pretty weak? Louisville’s toughest non-con game was against Southern Miss.). How this staff will fare against two strong offenses—Missouri and Miami-FL—is up in the air.

Pitching is Louisville’s strength, but the offense is capable. The schedule might have been weak, but the numbers (.304 team BA, .375 OBP, .460 SLG, 47 HR, 406 runs, and an astounding 141 stolen bases) speak for themselves. The Cards are led by senior Isaiah Howes (.387 BA, 15 HR, 55 RBI, 1.122 OPS) and senior Logan Johnson (.372 BA, 13 HR, 55 RBI, 1.188 OPS). It appears that the offensive gameplan is, get on base, steal to get in scoring position, then let Howes and Johnson drive you home. Senior Boomer Whiting is pretty much the perfect prototype of a leadoff hitter (.457 OBP, 69 stolen bases, 64 runs scored). Guys like Whiting give mid-major teams the potential to scare the big boys—if he gets on base, he can create havoc against anybody.

So as far as I can tell, Louisville played 8 games against NCAA Tournament teams and went 2-6—1-2 vs Rutgers, 1-2 vs St. John’s, 0-1 vs Kent State, and 0-1 vs Southern Miss. Rutgers is the best team they played—a 2-seed in Virginia’s regional—so we’ll take a look at how the three games they played at last week’s Big East Tournament unfolded. After defeating Villanova in Game One of the tourney, the 3-seed Cards sent Justin Marks to the mound against the 2-seed Scarlet Knights on 5/23. Marks (who the Tigers would likely play if matched up on Saturday) went 6 innings, and while he had a 2-4 K-BB ratio, he only gave up 1 run; meanwhile, the Cards lit up Rutgers starter Casey Gaynor. Boomer Whiting had 2 hits, 2 runs, and 2 RBI’s, while Isaiah Howes and 3B Chris Dominquez added 2 RBI’s each, and Louisville coasted, 8-1. The win meant Rutgers would have to defeat Louisville twice to make the Big East finals—and they did.

The Cardinals sent Colby Wark to the mound to try to eliminate Rutgers on 5/25. He would tread water through four innings, but Rutgers scored 3 times in the 5th to take a 5-4 lead. Louisville retook the lead, 7-5, but a 6-run seventh (which included 4 unearned runs) gave Rutgers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish; the Knights survived 2 HR’s and 3 RBI’s from Howes and a late Louisville charge to win, 12-10, and force an ‘if necessary’ game later that same day. Everybody must have been dead-legged from all the baserunning in the first game—Louisville starter James Belanger gave up 3 runs in 5 innings, and Trystan Magnuson pitched three scoreless innings in relief, but it didn’t matter. Isaiah Howes’ third HR of the day was the only run Louisville could muster, and a 3-1 Rutgers win sent Louisville home to await the NCAA tourney committee’s decision.

Louisville is a team devoid of big-game experience, but they have just the right tools—one great baserunner, two power-hitters, lots of seniors, and a staff of strong pitchers who don’t walk a ton of batters—to compete with anybody. Teams like this make me nervous, but Miami-FL and Missouri have both beaten teams better than Louisville. If Pitts and Marks are out of their minds, they might shut down either Miami or Missouri on Friday and Saturday, but it’s unlikely they’ll pull off both, and in the end this region will still probably come down to the Miami-Missouri matchup.