LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- Louisville's baseball team, well-stocked with talent and experience, began the season amid high hopes. But so far the Cardinals are struggling to live up to the promise of another exceptional season under coach Dan McDonnell, who has made a habit of them in his previous 14 years.
It's still early, of course; the No. 7 Cards (18-9) are just barely past the halfway mark of the regular season. But they certainly haven't been as dominant as they were in recent years, when they rarely had lost so many games at this stage of the season with the meat of its ACC schedule still ahead.
UofL is among the ACC leaders in virtually every major offensive category, including batting average at .296, a shade behind league-leading Georgia Tech's .297.
But the Cards have been lacking in the other two crucial areas, pitching and defense. Usually a solid defensive team, their fielding percentage of .963, with 35 errors, ranks 12th in the conference and their team ERA is seventh (4.36).
In McDonnell's words, following a sloppy 11-7 loss to Kentucky Tuesday night, "the book is out on this team." After the game, McDonnell kept his players in their usual post-game meeting in the outfield for 25 minutes, going over various issues he says are going to have to be resolved if UofL is to live up to its potential. Those include timely hits, fielding miscues, leadoff walks and inconsistent pitching.
"I had to teach," he said. "I told them, 'I know why we didn't win, but you guys have to understand why we don't win.' It was not about pointing fingers or names, and like I told the guys, 'I'm at the top, so blame me and I'll take the heat for it, but let's learn. You've got to learn to get better. You have to value winning at such a high level and you have to despise losing.'"
Part of the pitching problem is out of the team's hands due to a rash of injuries to key players -- Glenn Albanese, Michael Prosecky, Jared Poland and Kerry Wright. Albanese and Prosecky started games early in the season, whie Poland and Wright were being counted on to fortify the bullpen. Freshman reliever Kaleb Corbett, who leads the team with four saves, has also missed recent games.
McDonnell said all five are making progress toward a return, hopefully before much longer, but he doesn't want to rush them.
"If I could have them back Friday, I would love to have them back Friday because I'd love to win as many games as we can for the postseason," he said. "But the reality is that we need them for the postseason. We need to try and get them back one at a time. We need them back for the long haul."
And even though UofL's offense has been productive overall and has the potential to be one of McDonnell's best hitting groups, he says it has sputtered too often.
"You have to go out and earn it and this offense hasn't earned it," McDonnell said. "They're good, but there's opportunities where we can do more. It's all about being accountable. It's the quest to be our best and we're obviously not at our best now."
One good sign is that sophomore slugger Alex Binellas seems to finally be rounding into form after a slow start. Although he is still batting only .212 on the season, he has seen his bat start to heat up over the last two weeks. Over the last 11 games, he is hitting .310 (13-for-42) with two triples, four home runs, 15 RBIs and 11 runs scored. In his last full season, 2019, he hit .291 with 14 homers and 59 RBI.
More so than in any other season, it's important for Louisville to compile as many victories as possible before the ACC Tournament May 25-30 in Charlotte, N.C., because of a change in the way the NCAA will conduct its Division I baseball and softball tournaments.
Instead of host sites being awarded to the top 16 seeds in the 64-team field as in the past, the tournaments will have predetermined sites for regionals and super regionals as a safeguard against COVID-19. Schools are invited to bid to be one of the 16 regional hosts in each sport. The baseball sites will be announced the week of May 10. Eight super-regional sites will then be selected from among those 16. Previously, the eight highest advancing seeds host super regionals.
The rationale for predetermining sites, according to the NCAA memo, is that additional time is needed to prepare them for COVID-19 testing procedures. UofL sports information director Kenny Klein said the school will bid to host both a regional and a super regional.
Louisville's remaining schedule consists of 21 ACC games, starting with a three-game series against Florida State (15-10, 10-8 ACC). The Cards lead the Atlantic Division with a 10-4 record, the best mark in either division.
UofL also has two non-conference games remaining -- a rematch with Kentucky in Lexington on April 20 and a home game against top-ranked Vanderbilt on May 4.
Even with so much improvement needing to be made across the board, McDonnell figures a big plus for the Cards' postseason fortunes will be the return of the injured players.
"I think if we're fully healthy, we have a chance to do some real damage," he said.
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.