CLEMSON, S.C.—Dan McDonnell maintained his trademark humility Friday afternoon, even after his Louisville team’s 4-2 win over No. 11 Clemson officially entered the books as the 500th win in his 11-year head coaching career.
McDonnell, who has won all 500 of those games at the helm of the Cardinals, wasn’t going to talk about that number unless asked. And even once asked, McDonnell quickly pointed his finger elsewhere.
“All of it points to the players,” he said, as he packed up his belongings in the visiting dugout of Doug Kingsmore Stadium. “At the end of the day, players throw strikes, they make plays, they get hits. So any time something like this is discussed, I really hope it just draws attention to our players, our former players, guys that have done so much for our program—and they deserve to be recognized.”
It’s fitting, then, that the player who took center stage in win No. 500—the player that the scouts all came to see—is the best player in college baseball and the highest-profile player Louisville has ever produced.
Brendan McKay is the stature of player McDonnell and his program have been building toward—and the kind of player who, over the last three years, has helped build them.
The junior two-way star is responsible for a decent-sized chunk of those 500 wins. Just this year alone, he’s batting .372/.493/.720 with 15 home runs as the team’s cleanup hitter and is 8-3, 1.80 as their Friday starter. His name has been discussed among the first handful of picks in the draft and potentially the first pick—as either a pitcher or hitter.
But McKay wasn’t at his best in win No. 500. Even though the lefthander threw five scoreless innings, he needed 100 pitches to do so. He had just one clean inning, scattering five hits and three walks as he danced out of danger frame after frame. But that was OK. As important as a player McKay is to Louisville, he’s still just one player.
“He just competed,” McDonnell said. “I get on our guys: Anybody can win when McKay throws a one-hitter or eight-inning two-hitter or nine innings or a shutout. You’ve gotta win when he’s grinding it. It’s a long year. We ask him to do a lot.”
McKay opened his start with three straight 91 mph balls to leadoff hitter Logan Davidson before battling back in the count for a strikeout—and that at-bat would be representative of the rest of his afternoon. While not a high-end velocity pitcher, McKay’s fastball didn’t have the same zip Friday. Generally 90-93 mph and brushing 94 in previous starts, McKay touched 92 mph Friday and lived around 90 mph in the first inning before settling around 87-88 mph for the remainder of his outing. He threw more than a handful of mid-80s cutters, a pitch that McKay has only recently added to his arsenal (“It’s just one of those pitches that comes and goes,” he said). And he didn’t establish much of a feel for his upper-70s power curve, mostly shelving it until the later innings. When McKay is at his best, that pitch is one of the best breaking balls in the country.
“It’s just one of those days where you come out and your stuff’s not as sharp as it typically is or you hope to be,” McKay said, “and you just have to fight to throw strikes, fight to get contact, fight to get outs. It’s just a day where you have to work a little harder.”
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It didn’t help, either, that McKay was facing a veteran, disciplined Clemson lineup, which North Carolina ace J.B. Bukauskas had to similarly grind against a couple of weekends before. But if McKay was at all flustered, he didn’t show it. He never shows it. McDonnell likes to joke that McKay is impossible to beat in poker. Throughout his college career, he’s been unflappable and stoic, from on the mound to at the plate to in the locker room to post-game interviews.
“He’s stone-faced,” McDonnell said. “He doesn’t get too high or too low. He just gives you a chance to win. That’s what he’s done for three years.”
He’s given the Cardinals more than a chance. On Friday, he gave McDonnell No. 500, and over the next few weeks, he’ll almost undoubtedly give him a handful more.