DUNEDIN, Fla.—Louisville entered 2010 expecting to boast one of the nation's most potent offenses. With a deep, physical, athletic lineup, the Cardinals are certain to mash their way to plenty of victories this spring. But Louisville had to answer one big question: Who would replace departed lefthander Justin Marks atop the weekend rotation?
Two weeks into the season, it looks like that question has been answered. Junior righthander Thomas Royse was brilliant in Friday's 2-0 win against Michigan, allowing just two hits and two walks over six shutout innings while striking out nine.
"I can't take Justin Marks' place, everybody knows that—with the numbers that he put up, the records he holds at Louisville," Royse said. "I hope that I can somewhat fill his shoes, but I know our bullpen is much stronger than I think it ever has been since I've been here, and if I have any slack they're going to pick it up for me."
Royse showed glimpses of his talent last year before being sidelined with a stress fracture in his spine, but he said he has not felt any lingering effects from that injury this spring. On Friday, he leaned heavily upon his 88-92 mph fastball early in the game, spotting it wherever he liked to both sides of the plate. He used the fastball to rack up his first five strikeouts over three innings. But Louisville pitching coach Roger Williams said Royse began using his tight 74-77 mph slider more often in the middle innings as Michigan started to attack his fastball. He located the slider effectively to both sides of the plate and used it to collect three more strikeouts in the fourth and fifth innings. He mixed in an occasional changeup later in his outing, but Cardinals coach Dan McDonnell said he must continue to refine that offering.
"I live off my fastball, everybody knows that by now. I can usually put that where I want it," Royse said. "The slider comes and goes every now and then, but it seemed to work tonight. I get a much better feel for it (as the game progresses)—I get a much better feel for the mound and the surroundings."
Sidearming righthander Neil Holland followed with three perfect innings of relief to pick up the save. Holland, a junior who struggled with a higher arm slot for the first year and a half of his college career, was dropped down to the lower slot by Williams midway through last season. He took to it immediately, and Friday he ate up Michigan's hitters with a lively 87 mph fastball, a 73 mph Frisbee slider and a quality 73 mph changeup.
This was the second straight week Holland has come up big in the Louisville bullpen. In the finale of last weekend's series against Bowling Green, Holland was summoned in the first inning after the Falcons put up seven runs against starter Tony Zych. He worked five shutout innings, allowing just one hit and no walks while striking out five.
"He came in last week after we gave up that seven-spot in the first inning and put up about five zeroes, and then tonight, it shows you the confidence we have in him to leave him out there in the ninth when we have Bob Revesz and Gabriel Shaw ready to go in the bullpen," McDonnell said. "Neil looked great, so it's nice to know you can run guys out of the bullpen. I think in college baseball, because we don't play seven days a week and we have off days, I believe you go to the hot hand and if he's warmed up and loose and throwing well, you leave him out there. You used him for three innings so he's probably on the shelf tomorrow. You've got Revesz and Shaw ready to go tomorrow, and then on Sunday you use the next guy."
On a night when Louisville's dangerous lineup was limited to two runs on six hits by Michigan starter Alan Oaks and reliever Brandon Sinnery, the Cardinals showed they can also win games on the strength of their pitching and defense. Second baseman Adam Duvall and shortstop Ryan Wright each made terrific plays behind Royse and Holland. Wright, in particular, dazzled on a grounder deep into the hole between third and short, making a backhand stop on the run and firing a strike across his body to first baseman Andrew Clark, who stretched to a full split to rob Nick Urban in the seventh.
"I've been saying all along because we have such an experienced older club that Ryan Wright is a little under the radar," McDonnell said. "But you just saw his play tonight. If he's hitting fourth in our lineup, and you saw him make the play at short that he made, it shows you what we feel about him. And our kids know, he's a superstar.
"Yes, there are days when the offense can win games, but on a consistent basis, you must pitch and defend. And that was nice to see because we have a physical lineup, we have guys that live to hit, and there was a lot of frustration tonight. You've got to tip your hat to Michigan's guy—he was very good. He threw breaking balls for strikes, went in and out, located extremely well, kept his pitch count down. So I was most proud that we went out there and made plays after some tough at-bats . . . To be very successful in college baseball, to be a special club, you have to be able to do that."
It's early yet, but Louisville has the look of a special club.
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