We're still three months away from the College World Series, but Louisville once again looks like one of those teams expected to compete for one of the lucrative eight mid-June flights to Omaha, Neb.
The Cardinals are coming off a tough home series loss to a gritty Rutgers club last weekend. But with Notre Dame coming to town this weekend, only the best is expected out of this Cards club, which has all the key pieces you look for when it comes to an Omaha club, or dare I say it, national title type of club.
Slowly but surely, all the key pieces seem to be coming together for Louisville, as the Cards sit at 19-5 overall heading into the series against the Fighting Irish.
"We feel really good about our pitching and pitching depth right now. We have a lot of starters and confidence, and that has kind of moved on to the bullpen as well," McDonnell said. "As for the offense, we like the direction we're headed. We're always trying to make contact, while moving around the bases and forcing the action."
There's much to like about this UL club as the season progresses, but no facet of this team is more impressive than the group pitching coach Roger Williams has assembled, beginning with the two-headed monster on the weekend in veteran right-handed pitchers in Chad Green and Jeff Thompson.
Green and Thompson, roommates who played together at the Cape Cod League last summer, are having very good campaigns for the Cardinals at exactly the right time, as the two talented juniors have the MLB draft right around the corner. Green has a 1.96 ERA in 36 2/3 innings with teams hitting him at a .250 clip, while Thompson has been even more impressive with an 0.46 ERA in 39 innings, while he has struck out 39, walked 12 and limited teams to a .147 batting average.
"Chad. He's just your Zach Pitts, Thomas Royse, type of guy like a lot of our past Friday starters," McDonnell said. "He really controls the strike zone and controls both sides of the plate. He sets the tone for the weekend. I call him the ultimate tone setter for this club.
"Thompson has been very consistent this year. He has grown up a lot each year he has been here as a pitcher, and this season is no exception," he continued. "It's his third year and he's really mature now. Those two pitchers really push each other. I'd say they kind of have a friendly rivalry going on who is pitching better, so it's a pretty good, and fun, dynamic to have with your two leading starting pitchers."
Green, a 6-foot-4, 216-pound right-hander, consistently sits in the 90-92 range with his fastball, with the ability to bump a 93-94 on the radar gun. Meanwhile, he also throws a slider and changeup, both with good command.
Thompson has a massive 6-foot-6, 248-pound frame with more control over his velocity this spring. He's been low-90s with his fastball, while he continues to throw that swing and miss slider along with a good changeup. The righty finished last season with just 73 strikeouts, while this season, he already has 39 entering the final weekend of March.
Until this weekend, the final spot in the weekend rotation belonged to Jared Ruxer, who has a 4.45 ERA in 28 1/3 innings of work. But the Cards made a change, with talented freshman right-handed pitcher Anthony Kidston, who has an impressive 1.83 ERA in 19 2/3 innings getting the call.
In reality, the Cards have even more starting options on the weekend, including the potential of guys like Dace Kime and Kyle Funkhouser to also jump into the mix. Either way, it's definitely not a problem, and much more a luxury for the Cards.
Nick Burdi is a vastly improved reliever this season. (UL photo)
As impressive as the weekend rotation has been so far this season, the Cards are equally excited about their bullpen as the second half of the season approaches. Cody Edge and Kyle McGrath, among others, have been very consistent out of the pen so far this spring, but the big story is the rise hard-throwing 6-foot-4, 218-pound, sophomore right-hander Nick Burdi.
Burdi has always had a power arm, but in the past, he's had much trouble commanding his pitches in the strike zone. That no longer is the case, though, as with the help of Roger Williams, Burdi has evolved into the elite, and consistent, arm we always thought he could be.
Through nine appearances so far this season, Burdi, who has appeared in nine games, has yet to allow a run, and has recorded five saves, in 12 innings of work. He also has struck out 27 and walked four, while teams are hitting .100 against him.
"All the success he and other big-bodies pitchers have had, that's where the expertise of Roger Williams comes into play. You look at some of the other arms he's coached, like Daniel Bard, Andrew Miller, Trystan Magnuson, others, it's an impressive list," McDonnell said. "Burdi is a big, athletic kid, and last year, it always seemed like his arms and legs were just going all over the place. Roger simplified his stretch and delivery, and that really helped his ability to repeat.
"It has really been fun to watch Nick Burdi to develop into what he is today."
Burdi, who undoubtedly will be a very high pick in next year's MLB draft, touched 102 on the radar gun during fall workouts. This season, he has been pitching in the mid-to-high 90s with his fastball, while he's throwing his slider 88-93 as a plus pitch, along with a changeup that continues to develop."
As a pitching staff, the Cards enter the series against the Irish with a 2.16 ERA, ranking near the top from a national standpoint. The Cardinals also have a productive offense with a .302 batting average.
Unlike some UL teams of years past, this year's lineup won't overwhelm you from a power standpoint. For instance, the Cardinals have just nine homers as a team, with only second baseman Nick Ratajczak having more than one, though with just two.
But the common thread with this lineup is that they put much pressure on opposing infielders. For instance, electric outfielder Adam Engel, who's hitting .290 with a home run and 15 RBIs, is 23-for-26 in stolen bases, while shortstop Sutton Whiting and third baseman Ty Young, hitting .380 and .350, respectively, have a combined 22 stolen bases.
Amazingly, as a team, the Cardinals are 72-for-93 in stolen bases.
"Chris [Lemonis] have really done a nice job with this group this season. We have a lot more versatility than in the past, and we're continuing to adjust to the new ways of college baseball," McDonnell said. "We have a lot of high on-base percentage type of guys. That's what we preach. We want to have quality at bats, because we know we're not going to hit homers like we used to back in the day.
"But, we're going to wear out the gaps and put a lot of pressure on teams. Adam Engel is kind of the face of the type of attack we want to have offensively."
The Cardinals have a bit of good and bad news heading into the Irish series. Zach Lucas, who's hitting .316 but has missed the past couple of weeks because of an injury, is expected to return to the field this weekend. However, electric CoCo Johnson, who has 10 stolen bases, will likely miss this weekend's series because of a muscle strain around his rib cage.
With the personnel Dan McDonnell and his coaching staff have access to with this year's UL club, bad news doesn't happen very often.
UL has the pieces. Now it's about staying the course.
PITCHING PROWESS: Missouri State's Nick Petree vs. Indiana State's Sean Manaea
Missouri State junior right-handed pitcher Nick Petree has a golden opportunity to join a professional organization's wish list this weekend when he and the Bears play host to Indiana State, and of course, heralded left-handed pitcher Sean Manaea.
At least from a top-round standpoint, almost every scout and scouting director in attendance in Springfield, Mo., this weekend, will primarily be there to see Manaea, who could very well be the top pick in the upcoming MLB draft. But as Missouri State pitching coach Paul Evans and Indiana State head coach Rick Heller say, Petree isn't exactly the type of prospect to comb over. If anything, he should get more looks.
Missouri State RHP Nick Petree is having yet another great campaign. (MSU photo)
Plenty of brass in the scouting industry rely heavily on high velocities as one determinant of how a pitcher might fit into their system. But in Petree's case, all it takes is one person to fall in love with his game. As much as the Manaea vs. Petree showdown might seem all about the Sycamores left-hander, the reality of the situation is that it's even more important for the Bears righty.
Evans has little doubt which Petree will show up in this classic pitcher's duel.
"It's hard to describe, but Nick pretty much hasn't dropped off at all from last season. He just knows how to pitch. He's a hell of a competitor, he's very cerebral and analytical in the way he approaches hitters. He just knows what he's doing," Evans said. "He dials it up when he needs to and he just seems to have an uncanny ability to escape jams.
"For Nick, all it takes is one organization out there to prefer his stuff and pitchability over maybe a higher velocity, and there you go," he continued. "It'd be a huge shame to me to see Nick not get a chance to pitch at the highest level in baseball someday. He's a great, smart pitcher, and he's also like one of our assistant coaches out there in the way he leads."
More impressive than anything else about Petree's overall game is his consistency. Petree, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound, right-hander, shined in his first season with the program in 2011, tallying a 2.81 ERA in 11 starts. But he earned unanimous All-American honors as a sophomore last season when he tallied silly numbers with a 1.01 in 16 starts. Even more amazing about Petree's '12 campaign is that he went through much of the season fighting through a herniated muscle in his forearm, an injury the doctors said wouldn't get worse as he kept pitching, it'd instead just be painful.
"Yeah, it was just a small procedure and something that wouldn't get worse. I just have to compliment him on what he accomplished last season, because as I'd expect, Nick just wasn't going to be denied," Evans said. "He's healthy right now, feels good and is just pitching pretty loose out there."
Petree is putting together yet another outstanding campaign thus far in 2013. The righty has appeared in five games and has a 1.09 ERA in 33 innings. He also has struck out 34 and walked 12, while teams are hitting him at a .210 clip.
"I was talking to some scouts before we played them last year and they didn't really have him on their radar. I couldn't believe it. He might be a smaller righty who doesn't throw 92-93 with his fastball, but you watch him pitch, it's like watching someone throw whiffle balls," Heller said. "No one squares him up, and I'll say this, the last time I looked, those are the types of pitchers you want. I think he's a great pitcher with a crazy amount of movement on his pitches."
From a stuff standpoint, Petree is one of few pitchers in college baseball with a solid five-pitch mix. He throws his fastball well to both sides of the plate, and up and down, at 85-88, while he can bump 89 at times. He also has a plus bugs bunny changeup and a cutter that started developing four starts into last season. Meanwhile, the righty also throws a curveball and is now experimenting with a knuckleball, primarily in contests in which the Bears have a commanding lead.
"His cutter is a really good complement to his other pitches. He can dial it up when he wants to and he's just a guy who pounds the zone," Evans said. "What people don't really know about Nick is that he has a hellacious knuckleball. Who knows, maybe his ticket someday will be going through the system with that knuckleball."
Though Petree still might have something to prove in the eyes of some scouts out there, the same can't be said for Indiana State's Manaea.
Manaea, a 6-foot-5, 235-pounder, has a prototypical frame and has flashed big-time stuff over the past year, making his strongest impression as a prospect last summer while competing at the Cape Cod League with a fastball touching 97-98.
Manaea hasn't gotten that high with his fastball so far this spring, mainly due to horribly cold weather conditions, but his overall stuff has been excellent. The lefty is handling expectations in mature fashion, sitting well with an 0.84 ERA in 32 innings. He also has struck out 41 and walked 10, while teams only are hitting .159 against him.
"I feel like he's having a great year at this point. I was really proud of him last week because he pitched through a sprained ankle and still put together a good start," Heller said. "He wasn't able to do his normal routine because he was getting his ankle taped up, but he was still solid. He didn't give up a run and really toughed it out for us. Before that, he pitched against Minnesota and threw 111 pitches, 87 for strikes, in what I was told in front of close to 100 scouts."
From a stuff standpoint so far this spring, Manaea has been pitching anywhere from 92-95 with his fastball, while he sometimes utilizes a changeup. Manaea's slider, which sits low-to-mid 90s, is his most improved pitch.
"The thing for me this year is that Sean has been able to throw that slider better than he did last season. He threw it well last summer and is doing it when he wants to this spring," he said. "He hasn't thrown his changeup a lot because of the cold, but that's a pitch that he'll get more used to as the weather warms up."
Be sure to keep tabs Friday on the matchup between two of college baseball's best arms.
-- ALSO SEE: Patrick Ebert's report from Sean Manaea vs. Minnesota's Tom Windle
OUTSIDE THE BOX
Notre Dame: Fighting Irish head coach Mik Aoki was a miracle worker at Boston College, and is having the same effect on Notre Dame this season. The Irish have an excellent ace pitcher in Adam Norton, while third baseman Eric Jagielo has become an even better overall player. He's hitting a team-best .392 with four doubles, six homers and 22 RBIs. He's becoming a more heralded prospect, too, as he has helped lead the Irish to a 15-6 overall record.
Indiana: There's no doubt the Hoosiers were expected to have a solid club this season, but few expected them to get off to this hot of a start with many early season games on the road. IU has gotten big-time contributions from physical catcher Kyle Schwarber, who's hitting .416 with six doubles, five homers and 26 RBIs, while Joey DeNato has been fantastic as staff ace with a 2.51 ERA in 32 1/3 innings.
Houston: UH lured former Oklahoma State head coach Frank Anderson in as pitching coach, and that addition is paying huge dividends for Todd Whitting's club. The Cougars have a very solid 3.12 earned-run average, with right-handed pitcher Austin Pruitt leading the charge. Pruitt has a 2.36 ERA, while at the plate, young players such as Justin Montemayor and Josh Vidales have been spark plugs.
South Alabama: Jaguars head coach Mark Calvi expected his club to be much improved this spring, but this much better? South Alabama enters another Sun Belt weekend with a fabulous 22-4 overall record. The offense has been solid so far this season with dual contributor Jordan Patterson (.407/3/27) leading the charge. Also keep an eye on Dustin Dalken, who has smacked five homers and knocked in 17 runs.
Virginia: Cavaliers head coach Brian O'Connor always expects to have solid campaigns, but we're not sure he expected his club to get off to this great of a start. The Cavaliers have been very solid at the plate and on the mound so far this season, sitting pretty with a 23-2 overall record. Brandon Cogswell leads the offense with a .391 batting average, while starting pitchers Nick Howard and Brandon Waddell both have been solid this spring.
Florida: The Gators just haven't had much luck on their side this spring. They entered the season with high hopes, but were already behind the eight ball to start when it was announced right-handed pitcher Karsten Whitson would miss the season because of an injury. UF is hitting .260 as a team, while ace pitcher Jonathon Crawford has struggled with teams hitting him at a .271 clip.
TCU: Though the Horned Frogs lost some key offensive cogs before the season, they still were expected to be solid at the plate this spring. TCU, though, has immensely struggled thus far with an ugly .244 team batting average. Perhaps most surprising are the struggles of imposing first baseman Kevin Cron, who has a .194 average.
Southern Mississippi: The Golden Eagles entered the season with a full head of steam and several key cogs back at integral positions. USM, though, has struggled in many facets of the game, with outstanding right-handed pitcher Andrew Pierce as the exception. The offense is hitting just .262 so far this spring, with Chase Fowler, who's hitting .357 with a home run and 14 RBIs, leading the way.
Tulane: The Green Wave has had several injuries this season, but still have been very disappointing at times. Perhaps last weekend's series win over Memphis will get this club going moving forward to this weekend's series at Rice. Tulane has an excellent ace pitcher in right-hander Tony Rizzotti, but needs to get some other guys headed a positive direction with a 14-13 overall record.
Georgia: The Bulldogs simply haven't been very consistent in any facet of the game so far this season. Georgia has a dismal 9-17 overall record, but has some guys who have had some productive moments. For instance, Curt Powell and Kyle Farmer are having solid offensive campaigns, while freshman Sean McLaughlin and junior Patrick Boling are doing a decent job on the mound with ERAs of 2.81 and 3.92, respectively.
SERIES TO WATCH
5 Oregon State at San Diego: This is an important series for the Toreros, who are coming off a tough series loss to Gonzaga last weekend. Third baseman Kris Bryant continues to be a force at the plate. Meanwhile, the Beavers are coming off a series win over Arizona State and have a fantastic pitching staff with senior left-handed pitcher Matt Boyd (1.26) leading the way, while freshman reliever Max Engelbrekt (0.52) shined last weekend against the Sun Devils. THE PICK: Oregon State
-- ALSO SEE: Report on Oregon State LHP Matt Boyd
7 Florida State at Virginia Tech: The Seminoles have been very consistent this season, but get a tough test this weekend against the Hokies. The Hokies, like many teams this weekend, have their backs against the wall after dropping a tough road series to Miami. FSU veteran right-handed pitcher Scott Sitz continues to pitch at a high level, while it wouldn't be surprising to see sophomore righty Luke Weaver take on a more important role this weekend after yet another good midweek showing. THE PICK: Florida State
4 UCLA at 24 Arizona State: The Bruins have been outstanding so far this season, and to no surprise, once again are led by an impressive pitching staff with junior right-handed pitcher Adam Plutko leading the way. Meanwhile, the Sun Devils are coming off a tough series loss to Oregon State and desperately need junior right-hander Trevor Williams to return to usual form. Williams has had two lackluster outings in a row, allowing four runs on seven hits in five innings against OSU last week. THE PICK: UCLA
Miami (Fla.) at 8 Virginia: Some counted out the Hurricanes after struggling a few weeks ago, but they finally took a step forward last weekend with a solid home series win over Virginia Tech. Now, the 'Canes, with red-hot starting pitcher Bryan Radziewski hit the road with something to prove. Virginia has been a major surprise this season with shortstop Brandon Cogswell having a solid offensive campaign. THE PICK: Virginia
20 Mississippi State at 13 Arkansas: The weekend doesn't get much more important for the Bulldogs. Though State undoubtedly is a good team in my eyes, it's also obvious that you must start to win games at some point. State has dropped three-straight series to Central Arkansas, LSU and Kentucky. Outfielder Hunter Renfroe, who's hitting .425 with nine homers and 35 RBIs, leads the Bulldogs entering the weekend, while the Hogs are coming off a fantastic showing against South Carolina, where right-handed pitcher Ryne Stanek had a great start. THE PICK: Arkansas
12 Ole Miss at Florida: The Gators haven't exactly had a great season to-date, but played a much better brand of baseball against Vanderbilt last weekend. Perhaps that was the series that kind of gets this club going. However, UF must get right-handed pitcher Jonathon Crawford back on track. Crawford, who entered the season as a heralded prospect, has an 0-4 record and 5.67 ERA in 33 1/3 innings. Meanwhile, for the Rebels, right-handed pitcher Mike Mayers, who has been shaky the past two weekends, must rise to the occasion. THE PICK: Ole Miss
-- ALSO SEE: Scouting report on UF's Jonathon Crawford
-- ALSO SEE: Report on Ole Miss' pitching staff
25 Texas A&M at 14 South Carolina: The Aggies have played a good brand of baseball the past couple of weeks, and now hit the road this weekend to face an embattled Gamecocks club. A&M will move freshman right-handed pitcher Grayson Long, who has a good frame and power arm, to the weekend rotation. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks hope to make a statement this weekend with sophomore left-hander Jordan Montgomery still on the shelf. THE PICK: Texas A&M
15 Notre Dame at 18 Louisville: The Fighting Irish have put together quite an impressive resume so far this season, and that was, at least before Tuesday, even without ultra talented starting pitcher Pat Connaughton. Connaughton, who was playing with the Irish basketball team until last week ,tossed two scoreless frames in his debut against Kent State earlier this week. For the Cardinals, it's imperative starting pitchers Jeff Thompson and Chad Green rise to the occasion, while they'll again be without versatile CoCo Johnson. THE PICK: Louisville
Stanford at Washington State: The Cardinal dropped a tough series to Utah last weekend at home and must rise to the occasion this weekend against the Cougars. Stanford senior right-handed pitcher Mark Appel continues to pitch at a high level, carrying a 1.18 ERA in 38 innings into the contest. Meanwhile, keep an eye on Cougars starting pitcher Joe Pistorese, who has a 2.09 ERA in 38 2/3 innings. Perhaps most interesting about this WSU club is that its hitting .333 with Nick Tanielu leading the club at the plate, hitting .416 with two homers and 15 RBIs. THE PICK: Washington State
Clemson at 1 North Carolina: The Tigers stepped up in a big way last weekend and now hit the road with a chance to make a real statement against the Tar Heels. Clemson sophomore Daniel Gossett is having quite the year on the mound, carrying a 1.33 ERA in 40 2/3 innings of work into the contest. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels have been incredibly consistent so far this season, and have one of the nation's best ace pitchers in left-hander Kent Emanuel. THE PICK: North Carolina
-- ALSO SEE: Scouting report on UNC's Kent Emanuel