LOUISVILLE—Dan McDonnell has talked often this year about Kyle Funkhouser's maturation into the staff "bell cow." The Cardinals typically like to use an upperclassman as their Friday starter to set the tone for the weekend—on the field and in the clubhouse. But Funkhouser told his coaches last summer that he was determined to take on all the responsibilities that come with being the staff ace. The Cards could not have asked for anything more.
Funkhouser has been a rock on Fridays all year, and the first Friday of the NCAA tournament was no exception. The sophomore righthander was utterly overpowering in Louisville's 5-0 win against Kent State, allowing just four hits and a walk over eight shutout innings while striking out 10. He improved to 13-2, 1.68 on the season, extending his school record for wins in a season.
"If you're going to have a great pitching staff, you've got to have a great Friday guy," McDonnell said. "It's just been fun to watch him get better as the year's gone on. Losing your weekend rotation from a team that goes to Omaha is never easy. But it was a goal of his. I went up to the Cape Cod League to watch these guys play, he made it very clear then, he made it a mission of his to be the Friday night guy here."
Even as the No. 1 seed in their regional, the Cardinals usually like to throw their ace in the first game—it goes back to the importance of setting a tone for the weekend. One of the reasons Funkhouser is special is that he typically gets stronger as the game goes on, so an opponent's best chance to beat him is to get to him early. Kent State mounted its best scoring threat in the first inning, putting runners on first and second with one out, but Funkhouser escaped with a strikeout and a fielder's choice.
Then he retired 19 of the next 20 batters.
"The first inning was a little rough, but that seems to be the theme of the year," Funkhouser said. "Maybe a little bit of nerves, but once I settled in, I felt like everything was working . . . It's not like I try to throw harder at the end of a game, it's just a lot more loose, and it comes out better."
Funkhouser is built like an ox, and his fastball is explosive, ranging from 92-95 and bumping 96 with riding life. When the Flashes finally snapped his streak of 15 consecutive outs in the eighth, they were able to put runners on the corners with two outs, but Funkhouser blew away Troy Summers with a fastball on the outer half to end the threat. That got him up to 113 pitches, ending his night.
"He's a really good arm, one of the best starters in the Midwest, we knew that coming in," Kent State coach Jeff Duncan said. "He's going to get out of jams like he did, that's what makes him special.
"I think his fastball command was outstanding today. He was going to both sides of the plate. He'd get ahead 0-1, 1-2 to all our hitters, then come in late."
Funkhouser's ability to spot up his fastball on the inside corner to both righties and lefties really stood out Friday. He sawed off a number of hitters to get weak contact, and he would have broken plenty of wood bats.
"To be able to pitch in in college baseball—where it's different from the big leagues, more guys stand on top of the plate, the college guy's not afraid to take the HBP—for him to pitch in as effective as he was, I thought that was extremely impressive," McDonnell said. "Everybody has to be able to pitch on the outer third, that's a staple of pitching. But those that can pitch in effectively are at another level. He clearly did that tonight."
He also got his share of strikeouts with a sharp 81-83 slider with good tilt, which was especially effective against righties. The fastball-slider combination was vicious.
Funkhouser said he thought his command was as good as it has been in any start all year. Leave it to a true ace to perform his best when the stakes are highest.