Louisville showcased its "toughness" to qualify for its latest College World Series appearance.
The Cardinals had to overcome three elimination games in a 27-hour stretch early in the NCAA Tournament to keep its CWS hopes alive. Now Louisville (49-16) is heading to its fourth CWS in seven years riding a five-game winning streak, which includes last weekend's super regional domination of East Carolina.
The Cardinals clinched its CWS berth with a 12-0 victory behind an impressive performance by right-hander Bobby Miller, who came within three outs of posting the program's first no-hitter since March 1983. They also had to play the last four contests without closer Michael McAvene, who was suspended for four games following an ejection.
"We definitely showed our toughness," said 13-year Louisville coach Dan McDonnell, who has guided all five CWS berths since 2007. "It's not supposed to be easy. ... You've got to be able to overcome injuries, suspensions, setbacks, defeat.
"Fortunately in baseball you are allowed to lose a couple times throughout the postseason. So, that just gave us a chance to address those things."
Louisville led the Atlantic Coast Conference in multiple categories including batting (.298), runs (441) and earned-run average (3.65). But the top-seeded Cardinals were ousted early in the conference tournament, and followed that disappointing performance up with a 4-2 home loss to Illinois State in the NCAA regional that had Louisville on the brink of elimination.
"It was a wake-up call," said Louisville right-hander Reid Detmers, the ACC's Pitcher of the Year.
The Cardinals responded with a 9-7 win over Indiana that ended up providing a rallying point for the team when McAvene was quickly tossed in the ninth inning after uttering "That's horrible!" following a called ball by home plate umpire Ken Langford. The junior right-hander became something of a sympathetic figure on social media when the clip went viral. Louisville hung his No. 41 jersey in the dugout while beating Illinois State twice, advancing with a 4-3 victory on Alex Binelas' walk-off single.
"Losing McAvene wasn't the best thing for us, but we put that behind us to kind of play for him," said Binelas, a freshman third baseman hitting .307 with a team-best 14 home runs and 59 RBI. "That's what great baseball teams do; they play for each other and not themselves."
Louisville didn't need its bullpen much as all phases clicked against ECU. If outscoring the Pirates 26-1 with 32 hits over two games wasn't impressive enough, Detmers (12-4), Miller (7-1) and relievers Garrett Schmeltz and Michael Kirian combined to hold them to eight hits.
Louisville's resurgence has sparked comparisons to its prospect-rich 2017 CWS team led by national player of the year Brendan McKay, the No. 4 overall pick in the Major League draft by Tampa Bay. McDonnell won't go that far but echoed the team-wide view that depth has helped Louisville weather injuries to several regulars — and McAvene's absence.
"Coach Mac has said it all year," said McAvene (seven saves), who is eligible to return. "It doesn't matter if we're running 1 through 9 in the lineup or 10, 11, 12. Whoever we throw out there, they're going to be ready to go. Same thing with the bullpen.
"In my absence we've got guys like Michael Kirian, Bryan Hoeing, Shay Smiddy and Adam Elliott. All of them could be doing the same job I'm doing and they're going to do it at the highest level."
Louisville's next step is putting everything together in Omaha to move past a 2-8 CWS record toward its first national championship. The Cardinals will open against a familiar foe on Sunday in No. 2 seed Vanderbilt, which won the regular-season meeting 6-2 on May 7 in Louisville and got a no-hitter by Kumar Rocker in last week's super regional against Duke.
While Omaha is familiar for Louisville's veterans, others will be making their first visit. Either way, the Cardinals appreciate the trip because of how close they came to staying home.
Three times, in fact.
"We could have crumbled and said 'this is it,' but we didn't," Binelas said. "We stayed tough and ended up making a nice little run. Hopefully we can make a nice little run to the national championship."
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