College | Story | 1/9/2020

Cards head into 2020 at No. 1

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Alex Binelas, Justin Lavey (Louisville Athletics)

Preseason College Top 25 | Preseason College All-America Teams

The 2019 college baseball season was certainly a memorable one for the Louisville Cardinals, who utilized a young but deep and talented roster to win their way to a spot in the semifinal round at the College World Series in Omaha.

Based on the season the Cardinals had enjoyed to that point, the elite top-4 finish couldn’t be called unexpected. And based on a variety of factors tied into that finish, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the expectations for this year’s team are through the roof with the start of the 2020 regular season less than a month away.

Those expectations, in fact, couldn’t be any higher. When Perfect Game released its 2020 Preseason College Top 25 National Rankings on Wednesday, head coach Dan McDonnell’s 14th Cardinals squad found itself sitting in the cat-bird’s seat, grabbing the No. 1 ranking.

Like all top prospects at every other elite-level program in the country, the players who decide to hitch their wagons to McDonnell’s at Louisville arrive with the-sky’s-the-limit goals and the biggest one, obviously, is winning an NCAA Division I College World Series National Championship.

Louisville has received lofty preseason rankings from various outlets throughout McDonnell’s tenure and has finished as high as No. 3 in the rankings at season’s end. So, to be sure, this No. 1 preseason ranking bestowed by Perfect Game isn’t something the Cardinals’ players, coaches, administration and the enthusiastic fan base is going to look upon as burdensome.

“I’ve always said that preseason rankings are two things,” McDonnell told PG during a 25-minute telephone conversation early this week. “First, obviously, they’re about the talent you have in the program and what these guys have accomplished to this point and, second, it’s also the reputation of your program. There’s a lot of history involved when you’re given a high preseason ranking.

“I want our alumni to be proud. I want the former players to be proud. I want the fans to get excited, the season ticket holders. We have to monitor it a certain way for our players but we don’t downplay it.”

The Cardinals lost six key contributors from that squad to the MLB Draft, a number that included junior first baseman Logan Wyatt (2nd Rnd, Giants), junior right-handed closer Michael McAvene (3rd Rnd, Cubs), junior infielder Tyler Fitzgerald (4th Rnd, Giants), junior left-handed starter Nick Bennett (6th Rnd, Braves) and junior outfielder Drew Campbell (23rd Rnd, Giants).

But when looking at the 2020 Louisville Cardinals roster the sheer depth of the returning talent both on the mound and in the field is almost overwhelming. And McDonnell acknowledged that for a team to be ranked No. 1 nationally in any preseason poll, the people assembling those rankings most certainly started by looking at said team’s pitching staff.

And that’s where the Cardinals’ depth jumps off the page. Three of their top-four starting pitchers from last year’s CWS team – junior left-hander Reid Detmers, junior right-hander Bobby Miller and senior righty Luke Smith – are back.

Several top bullpen arms also return, including junior left-handed closer Michael Kirian, senior lefty Adam Elliott, sophomore southpaw Garrett Schmeltz and sophomore righty/infielder Jared Poland.

The indomitable Detmers, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound lefty with a low-90s fastball and a devastating curveball that he’s not afraid to go to early and often, is at the front-and-center.

Detmers, a 2020 PG first team Preseason All-American who was also PG’s Midseason Pitcher of the Year in 2019, went 13-4 with a 2.78 ERA in 18 starts and 113 1/3 innings last season. His 167 strikeouts ranked second nationally only to the 168 posted by Mississippi State junior left-hander Ethan Small, a first round pick of the Brewers last June.

“It starts on the mound and it starts with Reid Detmers,” McDonnell said. “You’ve got a Friday night guy who was the conference pitcher of the year as a sophomore. He’s very efficient with his pitch-count, a high strikeout guy – the perfect tone-setter for the weekend if you call it that. … The value of that No. 1 (starter) is one of the keys to the whole pitching staff.”

On the offensive side of the coin, McDonnell noted that despite losing leading hitters Tyler Fitzgerald, Logan Wyatt and Jake Snider from a year ago, the lineup he’ll send out there this spring is relatively seasoned with five of the top seven hitters back in the fold.

The seniors Danny Oriente, an outfielder/designated hitter, and Justin Lavey, an infielder, will be counted on to provide some veteran leadership and McDonnell knows they’re up to the task. Oriente hit a team-high .332 in 63 games last season, with a home run, 17 doubles, 49 RBI and 29 runs scored; Lavey hit .286 in 69 games with three home runs, nine doubles, 33 RBI and 34 runs.

“These guys have played a lot,” the head coach said. “They’ve been to Omaha two out of their three years in our program.”

And then there are the juniors, led by infielder/outfielder Lucas Dunn and outfielder/catcher Zach Britton who combined for 78 starts in 2019, and hit .309 and .288, respectively, as sophomores.

And speaking of sophomores, there aren’t many in the country better than Cardinal infielder Alex Binelas, an alumnus of the 2017 PG National Showcase who was a PG Freshman All-American in 2019.

All he did during that rookie campaign was hit .291 with team-highs of 14 home runs and five triples (also 14 doubles) with 59 RBI and 54 runs scored. Catcher Henry Davis, who was also at the 2017 PG National, is another sophomore looking to play a key role in the team’s success.

“When you can say the youngest guys in your lineup are Alex Binelas and Henry Davis, those are two freshmen that were everyday guys on a team that finished third in the country,” McDonnell said. “When they’re still the youngest guys in your lineup, that’s what makes you feel good as a coach.”

McDonnell also brought in a couple of junior college transfers in sophomore outfielder Levi Usher (Kirkwood CC, Iowa) and junior outfielder Luke Brown (John A. Logan Coll., Illinois) who could be asked to contribute immediately.

Usher, who is from Fairfax, Iowa, a suburb of Cedar Rapids where PG National Headquarters is located, is an intriguing prospect. He is an alumnus of both the 2017 PG National Showcase and the PG All-American Classic who suffered a broken leg while playing football during the fall of his senior year in high school, a setback he ultimately was able to overcome.

Kirkwood, which is in Cedar Rapids, proved to be the perfect place for Usher to spend his freshman year, hitting .409 with three home runs, 35 RBI, 65 runs scored and 36 stolen bases in 53 games for the Eagles. An outstanding defensive outfielder, he can throw in the upper 90s (mph) from the outfield and he ran a 6.50-second 60 at the 2018 PG National Pre-Draft Showcase.

A couple of highly touted freshmen, left-hander Michael Prosecky and catcher Dalton Rushing, could also be in the hunt for playing time this spring.

Louisville is coming off a 2019 season that didn’t come to a close until after the Cardinals had made their second trip to the CWS in three years. Even then, they came agonizingly close to reaching the three-game championship series, with eventual national champion Vanderbilt rallying for two runs in the top of the ninth and holding on for a 3-2 victory in the semifinals; the Cards went 2-2 in Omaha, with both losses to Commodores.

“As you learn, when you lose the last game – even in Omaha – it hurts,” McDonnell said. “Last year we were as close as we’ve ever been, finishing in (the semifinals) with a lead going into the ninth and you’re that close … to advancing to the championship series.”

The Omaha results left Louisville with an impressive 51-18 overall record, especially when considering the Cardinals lost three of their first eight non-league games to kick off the season. But they won 16 of 17 games mostly against ACC competition from April 7-May 5 and went on to win the ACC Atlantic Division championship with a 21-9 mark.

The success during the regular-season earned Louisville the right to host both NCAA Regional and Super Regional tournaments. The Cards went 4-1 at the Regional (2-1 vs. Illinois State) and beat East Carolina twice by a combined 26-1 scoring margin to win the Super Regional and move on to Omaha for the fifth time since 2007 and the fourth time since 2013 with McDonnell at the helm.

But even with that heart-breaking loss in the semis, McDonnell said the players were more determined than ever to take that final step in 2020. Right after they had climbed on the team bus, someone near the back hollered-out, “Coach Mac, is this the best team that’s ever played here?” Every Louisville team’s goal, after all, is to be remembered as the best in program history.

“I think the exciting thing for this group is there’s unfinished business, knowing that they can go farther,” McDonnell said. “Our staple phrase this year is ‘Somewhat Higher.’ That’s how we challenge our kids.”

And that goes beyond the baseball field and straight into the classroom. McDonnell told PG that the players compiled a cumulative 3.5 grade-point average during the just completed fall semester, the highest semester GPA in program history.

The Cardinals will get right after it to start the 2020 season, opening up with three games against No. 18-ranked Ole Miss down in Oxford, Miss, Feb. 14-16. It’s a good old ACC-SEC clash of titans right out of the gate and, in Louisville’s case, maybe a bit of a clash of cultures, as well.

That’s because the Cardinals’ roster features a lot of players not only from Kentucky but from the Midwest, which isn’t the case at most SEC schools. Top prospects from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin have made themselves right at home in Louisville and are contributing at a high level.

“We take a lot of pride in representing good, Midwest, tough baseball; those kids fit in well with our program,” McDonnell said. “We obviously like our talent, we like our depth, and I also think there’s a real toughness to this group.”

McDonnell told his players at one of their first meetings after the semester break that it’s important for them to realize that as a group if they play into late June as planned, they’ll be spending the next six months together.

It’s also important, he told them, to not allow themselves to get caught up in all the outside noise but instead get caught up in the things they can control. He and his staff constantly remind them that they know who they are and what they can accomplish on and off the field, so they should just go out there and be the best version of themselves.

“The preseason rankings and all these other things, they’re a part of it,” McDonnell concluded. “We want people to follow college baseball and get excited and we want people to respect our program. … We’ve done a pretty good job as a program of handling expectations and goals … but they know as we get close to the season, we’ve put all that in the closet; now it’s about being where your feet are and living in the moment.”

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