When Louisville’s romantic venture to the College World Series resumes with a game against North Carolina on Tuesday (2 p.m., ESPN2), the Cards will be looking for a victory that would likely make them the darlings of the local Omaha fans and set up two must-win contests against Rice on Wednesday and Thursday.
The elimination game with the Tar Heels will s/files/storyimages/one of the teams home, but it’s a situation U of L has had to face quite a bit lately.
“In recent weeks, we’ve definitely played well with our backs against the wall,” said the Cardinals’ head coach Dan McDonnell. “These kids enjoy the game so much. They enjoy the practices and they enjoy being around each other. Most important, they love having the opportunity to compete. Whenever you win in an elimination game, your season is extended. That’s what we’ll be trying to do.”
The Cards lost a disheartening game to Rice in their CWS opener, 15-10, after leading 10-4 midway through the contest. But they bounced back with a smashing 12-4 win over Mississippi State in Rosenblatt Stadium (pictured left) on Monday. Meanwhile, North Carolina lost to Rice, 14-4, in its first test, using eight pitchers in the process. But UNC does have experience on its side.
“North Carolina has put together a real good string the last few years,” McDonnell explained. “This is their second year in Omaha, so they have a lot of kids who have experienced this before. They also had their backs against the wall in the Super Regional when they split the first two games with South Carolina and then won the third. No one’s going to quit. There are no easy games left out here. We just have to come out, play well and play clean and find a way to come out on the positive side after nine innings.”
The Cards are expected to call on right-handed freshman Colby Wark (Jr., Terrebone, Ore.) to take the mound for the showdown.
“Right now, we’re leaning toward starting Colby. He has been our starter in the third game of a series throughout the year,” said McDonnell. “He’s a very talented pitcher who has the ability to strike guys out. Hopefully, he can get in the zone and get off to a good start. Other than Justin Marks (who started on Sunday), everybody else is available to pitch if needed. We’ll go with Colby, treat it as a game seven and use anybody and everybody possible to try to win this game.”
The Cards (47-23) will try to continue their aggressive approach at the plate, which has produced 22 runs in two games. Coach Mike Fox says his North Carolina team (54-14), the No. 3 seed in the Tournament, will try to counter by gaining an early edge with its pitching.
“Our goal is to get a good start,” said Fox. “These are kids, not robots, and they’re bound to make mistakes. We have pitched so well all year, and on this stage, against a team (like U of L) that hits the ball over the wall, we will have our hands full.”
UNC is led at the plate by sophomore second baseman Garrett Gore, who has recorded eight RBI in Omaha, giving him 27 RBI in the Tar Heels’ eight tourney games this year. Shortstop Josh Horton was 2-for-4 against Rice, scoring two runs and driving in one. He’s batting .382 (13-of-34) in the NCAA Tournament. Four UNC players were selected in the first seven rounds of the recent MLB Draft.
Regardless of which team starts strong, sustaining the effort will be difficult given the considerable talent both teams have displayed this season. Louisville’s McDonnell (pictured left) believes his team has learned about that from its loss to Rice.
“After that game, I just talked to our guys about how we didn’t play clean enough to win,” he said. “We let the momentum swing. We had some chances to shut them down defensively, and score a few more runs and we just didn’t do it. It was a credit to Rice, but definitely a frustrating loss for us. Against Mississippi State we and attacked again and put up some big runs early. This time, we never let up. We kept the momentum going, we kept scoring runs and we kept them from scoring and getting back in the game.”
NOTEBOOK: U of L publicist and play-by-play announcer SEAN MOTH has been at the center of the Cards’ whirlwind success story all season. In recent days, the demands on his time have literally tripled. “I had (announcer) Sean McDonough in one room, an ESPN camera crew in another room and a Hollywood producer in a third room who is working on a movie called ‘The Road to Omaha.’ I was trying to shuttle players in between. But none of that is any trouble. It’s all positive stuff. The whole city of Omaha and the whole baseball nation is embracing the Cardinals. The Cards have put on quite a show here so far in the first two games.”
Lefty pitcher JUSTIN MARKS (Owensboro, Ky.), who earned the win over Mississippi State had to leave the game in the sixth inning a few pitches after he was struck in the left knee by a line drive up the middle. He surrendered a three-run homer then departed. “I should have taken myself out of the game after I got hit,” he said. Coach Dan McDonnell thinks Marks, the Big East’s Rookie of the Year, has recovered well.“Justin is walking around fine with just a little soreness,” he said. “Hopefully if we’re able to stay here throughout the week, he’s going to be able to come back and pitch again.”
Thirty-two friends and family members are sharing the memorable CWS experience in Omaha with Coach DAN MCDONNELL, who played for The Citadel in the event in 1990. “We’re all just so happy for our players that they were able to experience the great opening ceremonies and the atmosphere at the College World Series. So many of the players have come up to me and asked, ‘Was it like this when you played?’ I kind of laughed and said ‘No, not really.’ It was big back then, but you can tell how much better they’ve gotten at hosting this event every year and how well they treat the kids. What a neat atmosphere.”
Louisville’s host organization for the CWS is the Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha. On Monday, the players and their special guests were able to visit the facility, see a cargo jet and tour one of four existing Cold War era "Looking-glass" planes. They were designed to allow the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Joint Chiefs and their staffs to run the military and the nation from the Boeing 707 aircraft (left). Also, the Cards each stepped into a flight simulator and learned to make a jet landing. Rumor has it they batted well above .500.
The Cardinals are making U of L’s first-ever trip to the CWS, and according to McDonnell, they’ve already received a little extra affection from the thousands of local fans who are setting attendance records at Rosenblatt Stadium. “I’ve been telling our kids I think the fans are going to love us,” he said. “They’re going to support us, and the longer we’re here – the more they get to see how we play and how we react and treat the fans – the more we’ll win the fans over. Hopefully, we’ll for here for the next week or so.”
COLLEGE WORLD SERIES SCHEDULE
Tuesday, June 19 – Louisville (47-23) plays North Carolina (54-14) 2 p.m., ESPN2
Wednesday, June 20 – Rice (56-12) vs. winner of U of L vs. UNC, 2 p.m., ESPN2
NOTE: Daily columnist Ron Steiner also appears on the Red & Blue Review, a weekly statewide TV sports show (Insight Ch. 2). He’s also published weekly in the Voice-Tribune and is a guest each Friday (5:45 p.m.) on the Cardinal Insider radio program (WKRD, 790AM). He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .