Despite Loss, Louisville’s Road Is PavedColumns
OMAHA — Louisville wasn’t quite ready for its time at the College World Series to end in the many minutes following its 4-3 elimination game loss to TCU.
As assembled media waited to interview head coach Dan McDonnell, who was unjustly tossed from the game following a bad call at second base in the eighth inning, players began to make their way from the field to the locker room. National Player of the Year Brendan McKay was silent, almost with the look of someone in a daze. Later, he quietly walked to the corner of the UL dugout to shake out the dirt in his cleats one last time in a Louisville uniform.
Other players made their way down the tunnel to the locker room, with McDonnell one of the last people to exit the field. With his trademark towel wrapped around his neck, McDonnell’s eyes were filled with tears.
This team was the one McDonnell and the Cardinals thought would win the school’s first national title. For the last two years, the Cardinals saw their season come to an end against a pair of Big West foes in Cal State Fullerton and UC Santa Barbara. But this team? They won another regional in style and swept rival Kentucky just to get to the CWS. Everything to this point was storybook.
But all things must come to an end, and it did so with some extra heartache. The Cardinals had plenty of chances against TCU, and had some calls go against them. In the second, the Cards had a play at the plate go against them as the Frogs were trying to score a second run on a base-hit by Ryan Merrill. Fitch applied the tag, but it seemed to be a hair too late and he was correctly called safe.
Later in the game in the eighth inning, everything went awry for the Cards. Fitch led off the frame with a single off TCU righthander Sean Wymer, who had retired seven straight batters to that point. Louisville fans were on their feet, players were smacking the padding along the dugout rail and boy, did this team seem to be in business to make a comeback with Drew Ellis and Brendan McKay the next two hitters up.
Fitch was replaced by pinch runner and speedy Ryan Summers. After Ellis popped out for the first out of the inning, the Cards got creative with McKay coming to the plate. Summers tried to steal second base off TCU catcher Evan Skoug. He appeared to reach second base, again, by a hair, before the tag could be applied. But the result?
Summers was called out. McDonnell, who typically keeps a low profile in the dugout, sprinted out to second base umpire Mark Winters. The two exchanged a few words about the call, but McDonnell was bizarrely tossed as he walked away and back to the UL dugout.
McKay followed up the drama with a strikeout on a 3-2 pitch. Sure, the Cards had another at-bat in the ninth, but let’s be honest, that moment just seemed to be an exclamation point on this game, and frankly, Louisville’s season.
Despite it being rather clear the call at second was bad, McDonnell didn’t spend postgame ranting and raving about umpires. He knows umpires and people in general can’t be perfect.
“I made a mistake. I lost my cool. I just fought for my guy, knowing the point in the game and knowing how valuable that base was, but I’m never going to stand behind a camera and blame and umpire or anything like that. That’s not the reason we lost. I don’t know if I should’ve been thrown out, but that’s not my call to make,” McDonnell said. “But I definitely fought for my guys and just wanted to stick up for them.
“I’m just saddened that, I don’t want that to be – I’ve got no ego about it. People can tweet or write or whatever they want to say about it. I just don’t want to take the emphasis off the kids,” he continued. “I just want the emphasis to be on the game, about how well-pitched and well-played, and how well coached it was.”
McDonnell said after the game he wished he could’ve been on the field for the ninth inning to watch so many important players close out their careers.
While Louisville’s time in Omaha is done for this year, this group of Cardinals leave behind quite the roadmap for success. The senior class went 12-0 in regional games, won two super regionals and reached the CWS twice. The junior class, which includes hard-nosed Fitch, slick-fielding shortstop Devin Hairston, All-American closer Lincoln Henzman, third baseman Drew Ellis and, of course, McKay, finally took the ultimate step forward with a trip to Omaha after experiencing the worst college baseball has to offer the last two seasons.
“I told the guys in the outfield how much fun I’ve had with this group. I’m really proud of them. The whole reason it was fitting is that we ran to the roar. That’s special after what the juniors and seniors have gone through the last two years,” McDonnell said. “We had great seasons, winning the ACC, being a national seed and winning your regional, and then losing your super regional, it’s so tough. So, I’m proud of these guys for putting it on the line.
“I always talk to these guys about courage. I reminded them out there, courage isn’t winning, because you aren’t always going to win,” he continued. “But they stepped into the battle and the guys embraced expectations. We made a point to get to Omaha and try to win a national title. And for that, you feel like they’re ready for the next journey.”
There’s no doubt the Cardinals have some key pieces to replace next season. But remember when we all thought they might take a slight step back last season when they lost Drew Harrington, Corey Ray and others? That’s something to remember moving forward, as the Cards look to Nick Bennett, Josh Stowers, Devin Mann, Sam Bordner and Adam Wolf, among others, to carry the torch next season.
Sure, there’s some rebuilding to be done. It won’t be easy. But McDonnell is an elite coach and this is consistently one of the nation’s best programs. The Cardinals undoubtedly will be back, it’s just a matter of when.
The road has been paved by this group.
“I always tell kids when they come to our program, that they need to try to leave it better than you found it, and that’s not always easy here,” McDonnell said with a laugh. “For the kids coming to our program, our senior class, two trips to Omaha as freshmen and seniors, and all the championships the juniors have had. Our younger guys have to understand that. Hopefully, that is a springboard for all the young kids in our program.”
Now you know why McDonnell simply didn’t want it to end.