Jim Patterson Stadium, Louisville (Host: Louisville)
Even after losing seven drafted juniors from last year’s Omaha club, Louisville entered this spring ranked No. 20 in the nation, the team to beat in the newly formed American Athletic Association. The Cardinals had just one losing weekend all spring and wound up winning the AAC regular-season crown, then reached the conference tournament title game before falling to Houston. The weekend rotation got a makeover in the offseason, as veteran workhorses Chad Green and Jeff Thompson left for pro ball. Sophomore righty Kyle Funkhouser (12-2, 1.81) slid into the Friday spot and thrived, showing the ability to hold low-to-mid-90s velocity deep into games. Jared Ruxer (7-1, 2.27) put his trying sophomore year behind him and put together a strong junior campaign, locating his solid fastball to both sides and making big strides with his slider and changeup. No. 3 starter Anthony Kidston (7-0, 3.40) is an athletic strike-thrower whose signature is his big 12-to-6 curveball, which causes coach Dan McDonnell to compare him to former South Carolina All-American Kip Bouknight. The stellar bullpen features two rock-solid lefties (Kyle McGrath and Cole Sturgeon) and a righthanded swingman (Jake Sparger) in key supporting roles around flame-throwing closer Nick Burdi (3-1, 0.56, 14 SV, 57-8 K-BB in 32 IP), whose fastball regularly reaches triple digits and wipeout slider reaches the low 90s. With a staff loaded with power arms, it should be no surprise that Louisville ranks seventh nationally in strikeouts per nine innings (8.4), and 22nd in ERA (2.85). But the Cardinals are dangerous on offense too, with an uptempo, aggressive style of play that gets results. Louisville really stands out for its speed (its 121 stolen bases rank second in the country), led by SS Sutton Whiting (33 SB) and Sturgeon (18 SB). Grant Kay (.286, 5 HR, 21 SB) brings some power and speed, but the centerpiece of the lineup is physical senior Jeff Gardner (.340/.416/.572, 9 HR, 19 2B, 66 RBI), a premier run producer with a knack for coming up with big hits when it matters most.
Kentucky has had an up-and-down season, largely because of its rugged schedule (only Florida has more wins against RPI top 25 teams than Kentucky, which is 11-11 in such games). But unlike last year, when UK got off to a great start and then went in the tank in the second half, the Wildcats persevered through adversity, winning their final two weekend series and turning in a strong 3-1 showing in the SEC tournament to carry some momentum into what should be an intense regional hosted by arch-rival Louisville. This regional has a little extra appeal because it will showcase the presumptive national Player of the Year, Kentucky two-way superstar A.J. Reed, who leads the nation in home runs (23) and slugging (.768), ranks second total bases (162), fourth in RBIs (70) and ninth in OBP (.491). And oh yeah, he’s also a legit SEC Friday ace, going 11-2, 2.10 thanks largely to his competitiveness and the running life on his average fastball. The Wildcats struggled on the mound while righties Chandler Shepherd and Kyle Cody worked their way back from injuries this year, but both threw well in the SEC tournament, giving Kentucky reason for optimism that this could be the year it wins a regional for the first time. The massive Cody can run his fastball up to 95-96 and flashes a very good breaking ball, while the smaller Shepherd can locate an average fastball to both sides and get swings-and-misses with his downer curve. The bullpen lacks depth, but juco transfer Spencer Jack (4-1, 1.19), a funky max-effort bulldog, has done a nice job providing some stability in the post-Trevor Gott era. Kentucky’s calling card, though is its explosive offense, which ranks fifth in the nation in scoring and fourth in home runs. Reed has a sound supporting cast in veterans Ka’ai Tom (.333), Max Kuhn (.322, 8 HR), Thomas Bernal (.313) and Michael Thomas (.310, 8 HR). And center fielder/leadoff man Austin Cousino (.298/.355/.435, 17 SB) provides more star power—he’s the engine atop the lineup.
The third basketball powerhouse in this regional, Kansas surged into at-large position by sweeping its final three conference series to finish third in the Big 12, though they went 0-2 in the conference tournament. After the third sweep, against West Virginia, the Jayhawks made an appearance in the BA Top 25 for the first time since 2009—when they made their last regional. KU coach Ritch Price said his team’s greatest asset is its senior leadership, provided by catcher Kai’iana Eldredge, center fielder Tucker Tharp and righthanders Frank Duncan and Jordan Piche’. On the mound, the Jayhawks had to overcome significant adversity when ace Wes Benjamin was lost to Tommy John surgery after seven starts. Kansas dealt with it by sliding closer Piche’ (6-5, 4.25) into the Friday starter role, leaving Robert Kahana (4-5, 3.05) on Saturday and Duncan (6-3, 2.46) on Sunday. Piche’ was primarily a fastball-slider guy in a relief role, but Price said he has developed a solid changeup to combat lefthanded hitters as a starter, and he’s been able to maintain his 90-92 mph velocity throughout games. The other two starters also have quality arms; Price said Kahana works at 91-94 mph and flashes a very good slider at times, but his command isn’t as consistent as the other two. Duncan holds 90-91 velocity deep into games and throws strikes with four solid pitches. The emergence of freshman submariner Steven Villines (2-2, 1.64, 8 saves) at the back of the bullpen was crucial, enabling Piche’ to move into a starting role. Tharp and Eldredge are key pillars of a Kansas team that is rock-solid up the middle. Junior shortstop Justin Protacio is a 5-foot-5 gamer who plays solid defense and makes the offense go out of the leadoff spot, leading the team with 39 walks. And sophomore second baseman Colby Wright has emerged as another strong defender (.976 fielding percentage) who also provides offense out of the 2-hole (.320/.408/.422). Tharp (six home runs), Connor McKay (nine homers) and Michael Suiter (.327/.417/.425, 3 HR, 40 RBI) provide punch in a lineup that relies heavily on small ball, giving the Jayhawks multiple ways to beat opponents.
Perennial MAC power Kent State has won either the conference regular-season or tournament title in 14 of the last 15 seasons, and it has won the automatic bid nine times in that span. The Golden Flashes did not dominate the MAC this year, finishing second in the East Division at 16-11, then going 4-0 in the conference tournament to win it as the fourth seed to make regionals for the first time since their 2012 run to Omaha. The two most important holdovers from that team, CF Alex Miklos (the team’s top hitter at .362) and infielder Sawyer Polen, have been sidelined with a knee injury and mononucleosis, respectively, and are not expected to play this weekend. With Miklos out, physical senior Troy Summers has stepped into regular outfield duty and provided a spark. The middle of the lineup features a dangerous duo in Zarley Zalewski (.355/.430/.477, 16 2B) and Cody Koch (.330/.430/.500, 7 HR, 56 RBI), headlining an offense that ranks eighth in the nation in doubles per game and 14th in triples per game. Kent State’s pitching staff is anchored by another holdover from its 2012 Omaha team: physical LHP Brian Clark (6-6, 3.78), who has run his fastball up to 94 at times and features a quality slider and improving changeup. Kent State has another good arm behind him in freshman lefty Eric Lauer (8-4, 3.26), a live-bodied athlete with a low-90s fastball that has bumped 94 and a promising curve. Fourth-year junior Eric Dorsch (3.60, 10 SV) gives the Flashes a grizzled veteran at the back of the bullpen.