Cards 'ready to roll,' take aim at another regional title

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- Louisville's bats took an unexpected, and costly, nap last week during a brief stay in the Atlantic Coast Conference baseball tournament, but coach Dan McDonnell isn't worried that it will be an extended slumber.


It better not be because there's much at stake for the Cardinals this weekend.


Top-seeded and No. 7 national seed Louisville (43-15) will try to snap out of its mini-slump at the plate when it meets the No. 4 seed University of Illinois at Chicago (29-21) at 6 p.m. Friday in the NCAA Regional in Jim Patterson Stadium. No. 2 Indiana (36-21) and No. 3 Illinois State (34-24) will get the double-elimination tourney underway at 2 o'clock.


Louisville is hosting a regional for the sixth time in seven years and all five previous times the Cards have advanced to the Super Regional, which they would also host if they survive this weekend.


Louisville went into the ACC leading the league with a .298 batting average, but managed just four hits in 18 innings in losses to Boston College (5-1) and Clemson (7-1). That chopped a full six points off their average at .292 and dropped them into third place. The Cards are averaging 7.6 runs per game, which is 12th nationally.


"We ran into two really good pitchers (in the ACC) and we didn't play particularly great," McDonnell said Thursday. "We wouldn't be in this position if our offense didn't produce this year. Offensively, it's nice to get home and get back to a routine, and we feel really good."


On the positive side of Louisville's quick exit from the ACC, it means the Cards will have a well-rested pitching staff this weekend.


Junior lefty Nick Bennett (6-3, 4.64 ERA) will try to get Louisville off to a quick start and is expected to face Horizon League Pitcher of the Year Jacob Key (7-7, 3.67), a junior righthander.


Louisville’s usual Friday starter is ace Reid Detmers (11-3, 2.80), but McDonnell is holding him back for Saturday's second game, perhaps anticipating a showdown with Indiana, which led the Big Ten in home runs with a program-record 90 and took the Cards into extra innings two weeks ago before losing 8-7.


"Nick Bennett's pitched a lot of big games in his career here, he's pitched in this atmosphere before in a regional," McDonnell said. "So this is his time and I'm excited and happy for him. He's a competitive kid, he's all about competing. We feel like he's the perfect guy to set the tone for the weekend, and hopefully all the other pitchers just fall in line, follow his lead."


Bennett suffered from arm fatigue late in the season and was held out of series against Notre Dame and Virginia, then started against Florida State on May 17, but lasted only 2.1 innings, giving up nine hits and six earned runs in a 14-3 loss. He pitched three innings against BC last week, allowing three hits, and is now healthy again.


"He's fresh, he's strong, he's ready," McDonnell said. "Looking back, we should have let him go another inning or two (vs. BC), but it was all in preparation for here. We're confident Nick's going to give us six, seven, eight innings."


After finishing the regular season 18-11 in the Horizon League, Illinois-Chicago (UIC) breezed through the league tournament as the No. 2 seed, scoring 35 runs in three games, to earn its sixth NCAA bid.


The Flames are 9-1 over their last 10 games and feature one of the top sluggers in the nation in senior rightfielder Scott Oda, who has hit 19 home runs and is ninth in slugging percentage in Division I at .746. He's batting .358 with 62 RBI and has hit safely in 47 of 50 games.


In the week of practice since bombing out in the ACC, the Cards say they have been focused and energetic and are confident they will regain the form that carried them to the league's regular-season title in the regional.


"We're just really on top of everything, crossing our T's and dotting our I's," sophomore centerfielder Luca Dunn says. "I think we're ready to roll."

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