Louisville Begins ‘Revenge Tour’ with Gritty Win Over Charlotte
TAMPA — Suffice it to say that Louisville was a team eager to turn the page.
Last season, the Cardinals went from ACC title contenders to out of the postseason altogether in the blink of an eye after they were swept in three of their last four conference series and crashed out of the ACC Tournament quickly.
They want 2022 to go differently and you could see it in their 8-7 win over Charlotte to begin a round-robin tournament in Tampa hosted by South Florida.
Things started with a bang for Louisville, as third baseman Ben Metzinger launched a two-run home run in the first, and the Cardinals played add-on in the next two innings to take a 5-0 lead after three frames. That swing by Metzinger really set the tone, and for a while, it looked like it was going to be the catalyst for a Louisville blowout.
“It’s a revenge tour, as we say, so it just felt good to get ahead of a team,” Metzinger said. “We want to win the first three innings and the last three innings, that’s what we’ve been preaching.”
Coach Dan McDonnell also didn’t shy away from admitting how big it was for his team’s psyche to jump out in the way they did.
“It’s been a long offseason,” he said. “To get a two-run lead in the first, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t probably what we needed. But then we scored two in the second and one in the third, and I just liked our fight today.”
But the way McDonnell phrased that is correct, because it turned out that Louisville was in a fight.
After taking that 5-0 lead, Charlotte battled back to make it 5-3. Louisville then went up 6-3, but just as quickly, it was back to 6-5. The Cardinals appeared to take a commanding 8-5 lead late, but even then, a two-run homer for the 49ers in the ninth made it a close game at 8-7.
One trait it’s easy to see even in this kind of small sample is that Louisville has a lineup that can beat an opponent in a number of different ways and doesn’t offer any sort of letup. Eight of nine Louisville hitters reached base at least once, and five different hitters had at least two hits.
“We’ve got gritty guys,” Metzinger said. “We got great at-bats up and down the lineup. There’s not a hole in our lineup, you can tell by just that first game.”
Many of the veterans you expect to see step up in the Louisville lineup did just that. In addition to the home run, Metzinger added an RBI single in the eighth for what ended up being the most important insurance run of the game.
DH Cameron Masterman, a veteran of five years in the program, had two hits, including an RBI single of his own. Another veteran, first baseman Ben Bianco, had two hits, one of them a two-run single, and also reached on an error and scored on the Metzinger single in the eighth.
But the Cardinals also got plenty from younger guys. Sophomore shortstop Christian Knapczyk had three hits out of the leadoff spot, and sophomore second baseman Logan Beard had two hits, including one where he singled and then came all the way around to score on the same play thanks to two consecutive Charlotte errors.
“The juniors and the seniors we just trust,” McDonnell said. “They’ve been through a lot. We’ve got guys on this team that played in Omaha, and then we’ve got guys that showed up when we were preseason number one in the country. And they went through Covid and then they went through a down year. I just feel really good about our juniors, seniors and fifth-year guys. They’re ready for this. If our sophomores can relax and give us something and the freshman will (give them something), it just takes time.”
2023 NCAA Tournament Super Regional Preview: Top Hitters & Pitchers
Breaking down the top hitter and pitcher for each team in the Super Regionals.
Where there are still more questions to be answered is on the mound. Last season, in part due to injuries and Covid but also because of steps back from guys the team was counting on, it was tough to know what to expect from week to week from Louisville’s pitchers.
While we have to understand that you can never draw too many conclusions about a pitching staff from Opening Day, it was safe to call it a mixed bag on Friday. Righthander Tate Kuehner started and did a nice job of fighting through base runners in the first three innings, but in the fourth, he couldn’t get out of his biggest jam, leading to three Charlotte runs.
Righthander Ryan Hawks came on in relief and was nearly unhittable for his first couple of innings, but he, too, got hit late in his outing. Specifically, Charlotte third baseman crushed a two-run homer off of him in the seventh. And after righthander Kaleb Corbett got the last two outs of the seventh, lefthander Michael Prosecky threw the final two innings, but not without allowing a two-run shot to Charlotte’s Cam Fisher in the ninth.
Everyone who took the mound pitched well for stretches, but most had at least some adversity. Part of that is Charlotte having a very good lineup in its own right, but there were also some near misses in terms of making moves to the bullpen, and that’s something that can just take time to feel out as the season goes on after you gain information that you don’t always have on Opening Day.
“You feel like, as a coach, you just get a little greedy, and if you get each (pitcher) out maybe a batter or two earlier,” McDonnell said. “Tate gives us a great start, (but) again, one batter or so too many, and Hawks bridges that gap. Corbett does what we know Kaleb can do, and I thought Prosecky, who’s going to get the last three outs of the game and he gets the last six, and obviously all the runs mattered.”
Prosecky did get tagged for the two runs in the ninth, but Louisville should feel very confident, generally, about how he looked in the closer’s role. He was electric in striking out the side in the eighth to strand an inherited runner and then punched out two more in the ninth, including one immediately after the home run.
His teammates certainly have belief in him. After McDonnell came back from going to the mound to visit with Prosecky after he gave up the home run, he took a quick straw poll of the players in the dugout to ask if they believed in the hard-throwing lefthander. They answered resoundingly in the affirmative.
“Everybody trusts the guy. He’s amazing. It’s great,” Metzinger said.
A win like the one Louisville got Friday can only help build more trust. It didn’t come easy, they needed everyone to do a little something and they repeatedly bounced back from adversity. It’s a long season, but it felt like a real first step toward making 2022 a very different kind of season.