Louisville Maintains Belief, Rallies For CWS Win

Image credit: Louisville coach Dan McDonnell

OMAHA — For the first six innings Thursday night against Mississippi State at the College World Series, Louisville looked like it was on its way to being eliminated. A very successful season was going to end short of the final weekend in Omaha.

Offensively, the lineup wasn’t doing much against Mississippi State righthander JT Ginn, who threw six scoreless innings with just three hits allowed.

Defensively, after three scoreless innings, the Bulldogs scored two runs off Cardinals lefthander Nick Bennett in the fourth inning, chasing him from the game and forcing the Louisville bullpen into duty fairly early.

And the Cardinals also had their fair share of mistakes on the bases that snuffed out what could have been rallies. In the third inning, Lucas Dunn tried to move from first to second on a pitch in the dirt but was thrown out by a wide margin by Mississippi State catcher Dustin Skelton. It was a similar story in the sixth inning, when pinch runner Trey Leonard was thrown out by Skelton when he tried to move up to third.

The Cardinals looked done.

But that was just the perception from the outside looking in, because that was not the feeling in the Louisville dugout.  

“Everybody had positive things to say in the dugout, and just going around the dugout everybody was just picking each other up, and we weren’t done, they were just pushing,” Louisville right fielder Drew Campbell said.

It’s little surprise, then, that Louisville fought back and forced a different ending than the one that looked destined to occur for the first two and a half hours of the game. The Cardinals delivered a walk-off, 4-3 victory to advance to college baseball’s final four and a bracket final Friday against Vanderbilt.

With Ginn lifted from the game after the sixth inning, Louisville pushed two runs across against Mississippi State reliever Jared Liebelt in the bottom of the seventh, a half-inning after Mississippi State added a third run to make it a three-run deficit for the Cardinals.

After walks to Tyler Fitzgerald and Alex Binelas and an infield single from Jake Snider, Campbell slapped a single through the left side to make it 3-1. Justin Lavey pushed another run across and made it 3-2 when he beat the relay throw on a potential double-play ball.

“Any offense really, but especially ours, it’s contagious,” Louisville DH Danny Oriente said. “As soon as someone gets that first hit, you almost know that the next person is going to get to the next person in the lineup. It may take a few rounds of the lineup to go through to get that to click, but it usually works out.”

Still, the Cardinals were chasing a run heading to the bottom of the ninth. They needed to string some baserunners together or they needed a break. As it turns out, they got both.

After Snider drew a walk to lead off the frame, he was able to scamper to second when a pickoff throw to first from Bulldogs closer Cole Gordon bounced away. With the walk to Snider, Louisville got a runner on, and with the error, it caught a break.

Oriente followed with a single to center, but a bullet of a throw from Jake Mangum had Snider nailed at the plate. Skelton couldn’t corral the throw, however, and the game was tied, 3-3, instead. With Oriente’s single, the Cardinals had another baserunner, and with the ball squirting away from Skelton, they got another break.  

Oriente moved to second on the throw from Mangum, so it was an obvious bunting situation for Campbell, who was due up next. With a successful sacrifice, the winning run would be sitting just 90 feet away with one out.

Campbell couldn’t get it down, but that was rendered moot when he slashed a ball into right-center field, scoring the winning run and pushing his team to a 4-3 win. Louisville got a huge hit, and by not getting a bunt down in that moment, it also caught a break.

“Now, I coach the bunting, so I made a comment in the outfield, ‘Let’s fire the guy who coaches the bunting,’” Louisville coach Dan McDonnell joked, before lauding Campbell’s ability to battle in the batter’s box. “If you don’t get the hit-and-run, you don’t get the bunt, you don’t execute and you’re still alive, win the at-bat. Show your toughness and win the at-bat.”

In victory, Louisville made history, as it’s the first time it has won two games in a single Omaha trip. The four previous trips have all ended in 0-2 or 1-2 showings.

“You know, we’re really happy to be the first team to do that, and that’s really cool and all, but we’re not done with the business yet,” Bennett said. “There’s a lot more baseball to be played, and I think the guys next to me could say the same thing. But yeah, we’re really happy about that, but we’re going to forget about this and move on to tomorrow.”

The task in front of the Cardinals is still quite tall, there is no doubt. It will have to take down tournament favorite Vanderbilt once on Friday and then again Saturday to advance to the championship series.

But don’t forget that this particular team is no stranger to tall tasks in the postseason.

After a come-from-behind win to begin its regional, Louisville took a loss against Illinois State. Then, after beating Indiana in an elimination game, it needed to beat the Redbirds twice in two days, all without key reliever Michael McAvene, who was suspended after an ejection.

The Cardinals pulled it off and used that momentum to blow out East Carolina twice in a super regional.

Perhaps that CWS-opening loss to Vanderbilt on Sunday was just the catalyst for another torrid run.

“The regional and super regional has helped us a ton,” Bennett said. “You know, baseball is a lot of mental side of the game, too, so I just think the tough games and battling with one another helps us mentally, as well, and gives us confidence in late-inning games, close games, as well.”

This Louisville team has openly talked about how they want to be the greatest team in the history of the program.

Already, they technically may have done that by winning two games in Omaha, but with a few more wins in the days ahead, they will leave no doubt.

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