Louisville fans are probably grateful for the distraction of a College World Series berth with all of the infractions swirling around the basketball program right now, and as such, the Managing Editor of our sister site, Card Chronicle, Mike Rutherford was kind enough to answer a few questions and help us get to know the betting favorite of this year’s College World Series, the Louisville Cardinals.
Frogs O War: Louisville comes to Omaha as one of the hottest teams in the tournament, having been absolutely dominant (save that nail biter with Xavier) so far in the post-season. Is this indicative of the season as a whole, or have they gotten hot at the right time?
Mike Rutherford: With the exception of the way they ended the season -- losing four of their last five heading into the NCAA tournament -- this is who Louisville has been all year. The Cardinals were the last team in the country to taste defeat, starting the season 19-0, and have owned the nation's best overall record virtually the entire season. The only concern heading into the regional was that they had been flat in the last week of the regular season and in the ACC tournament, but they've erased those concerns by wining five straight and looking awfully impressive in the process.
FOW: The Cardinals will face off with an A&M team that has by far the lowest RPI of any team in the College World Series, but has a few dangerous hitters in their lineup and a couple of really good arms. How do you think the team matches up with the Aggies?
MR: Yeah, A&M is the only team still standing that had to sneak into the tournament, so this would seem to be the most favorable opening matchup possible for Louisville. Then again, anything can happen in Omaha. In U of L's first trip to the CWS a decade ago, the Cards were the lowest seed in the field and squared off against overall favorite Rice in game one. They led that game 10-4 before falling apart in the bottom of the 8th and taking a heartbreaking defeat.
Texas A&M comes out of the SEC, so you know they have next-level talent and have been battle-tested over the course of the previous four months. They also have just as much confidence and momentum as the other seven teams still playing. Winning your first game is so crucial in this event, so it'll be interesting to see if Dan McDonnell sticks with Kade McClure for game one as he did in the regional and super regional, or hands the ball to Brendan McKay, who has been the program's best pitcher for the past three years and the Friday starter all season long.
(UPDATE: It's McKay)
FOW: Louisville is one of the more dangerous lineups in Omaha; four regulars hit over .300, three players have double digit dingers, and seven sport at least 40 RBIs. What is it about the lineup that makes it so good, and the few opponents that have had success against them, have done it how?
MR: Well I think it's so good because you have a perfect mix of speed, contact hitters and power hitters. The top of the lineup is so good at getting on base and then advancing to scoring position. Then Brendan McKay and Drew Ellis are as dangerous a 1-2 combo in the middle of the lineup as there is in the country. And then the guys at the bottom of the order would be hitting somewhere 1-3 for just about every other team out there. It's telling that Ellis and McKay virtually did nothing in the regional round, and U of L still managed to score 30 runs in those three games.
FOW: As if the 2.89 team batting average and 70 home runs weren't enough, Louisville can pitch as well, with a team ERA that's actually lower than their average (2.85) and 584 strikeouts on the year. Should the rest of the field just go home or can someone rough up these pitchers enough to compete with the Cards?
MR: The staff is rock solid, but there are reasons for opponents to have hope. No. 2 starter Kade McClure had gone three straight starts without picking up a win before pitching really well against Kentucky in game one of the super regional. All-American closer Lincoln Henzman was also very shaky at the end of that game. Historically, Louisville has had great closers who have had some pretty rough moments in 8th and 9th innings of NCAA tournament games. Also, the team's No. 3 starter, Nick Bennett, is 5-0, but he's a freshman. You never know how a young guy is going to react when he's on the biggest stage of his life.
FOW: Wax poetic on the two-way wonder that is Brendan McKay - .343, average, 17 home runs, .657% slugging to go with a 10-3 record, 2.34 ERA, and 140 Ks.
MR: Simply put, he's the greatest player to ever put on a Cardinal uniform. I think most of us here thought that was going to be the case when we first saw him as a freshman, and he has more than lived up to the hype in the two years that have transpired since.
McKay was probably the most highly sought-after recruit Dan McDonnell has ever landed. The only reason he wasn't drafted higher out of high school -- where he tied a national record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched -- is that he had made it clear how committed he was to coming to Louisville and experiencing college baseball.
Even though he wasn't technically the team's No. 1 starter until midway through his sophomore season, he's been Louisville's best pitcher since the day he arrived. If there is one concern for McKay heading into the College World Series, it's that he's in the midst of his biggest hitting slump of the season. The hope around the program is that having the weight of the MLB Draft (where he was taken fourth overall and earned the highest signing bonus of any player selected) being off his shoulders might help clear his mind and get him back to his old self at the dish.
FOW: How do you see game one going? Can Louisville block out the considerable Aggie noise and come away with a game one win? What are your expectations for the Cardinals overall?
MR: Louisville should win the game, it would seem, but this is a program that is 0-3 all-time in CWS openers. That said, this group has a different feel about them. I think they get the job done on Sunday.
FOW: Lastly, if you have had a chance to watch TCU at all, what are your thoughts on a game two matchup with the Frogs?
MR: I haven't seen TCU very much at all, but I know they've been to four straight College World Series, which is an unreal accomplishment that speaks for itself. Whichever team Louisville faces in game two will provide them with a considerable challenge.
Thanks again to Mike for the time!