The University of Louisville baseball team is a month into its fall ball season, giving head coach Dan McDonnell an opportunity to further evaluate his rebuilt squad. After losing seven underclassmen to the Major League Baseball Draft and a trio of seniors, the Cardinals welcome many new faces to the roster this fall. Fall ball provides the opportunity for the new look Cardinals to develop as a squad and prepare for the 2014 season.
"The effort is good," McDonnell said. "We have a lot of teaching to do, that's all. It's a really good group of kids. It's a talented group and a nice mix of older guys and younger guys. It's much different than last year, where you felt like that group were familiar with how to play the game at our level and the way we like to play it. Now, we're just not in sync like we were this time a year ago, but we expected that and we just want to make sure the kids know that there's a sense of urgency. The sooner they pick it up, the sooner we'll start having success."
The Cardinals have played multiple intra-squad scrimmages since fall ball began a month ago and while it provides the chance to improve, it does lack the urgency felt during the regular season.
"The scary thing about the fall is there's no ramifications. You don't lose to anybody and you don't have that knot in your stomach. You get to play everyday no matter how you do the day before. That's just the way fall baseball is, so as coaches we are just trying to do our best to get these guys to realize the importance of everything from running the bases, to hitting your cutoffs, to having quality at bats, to making pitches when you have and fielding your positions. It's fun in one sense because you know that there is a lot of teaching that we have to do."
After returning from the College World Series in June, McDonnell named seniors Jeff Gardner and Cole Sturgeon as team captains for the 2014 season. With so many newcomers on the team, the need for leadership is high and McDonnell is expecting to see more from the veterans on the team.
"I'd like to see a little more leadership. I've challenged a couple guys. I told Gardner and Cole the reason we named them captains early in the fall was to not just lead by example, but to lead by effort, by hands on and reaching out to these kids. We need Zach Lucas, Alex Chittenden, Sutton Whiting, Crain and Gibson to lead. There's enough older guys to set the tone offensively and there's enough older pitchers in Burdi, McGrath, Sturgeon, Alphin and Ruxer that should also be leading by example and by effort. Hopefully we'll get better in all those areas."
FRESHMEN GETTING NOTICED
Just as junior college transfer Grant Kay is expected to fill a need for the team in 2014, the multiple freshmen joining the squad will also need to become contributors next spring. Through four weeks of fall ball, a pair of freshmen have impressed in the field.
Utility player Will Smith has played multiple spots in the infield and right field. A First Team All-State performer at Kentucky Country Day, Smith has also done well at the plate.
"I think early on and to this point, Will Smith, because of his versatility. He's done very well behind the plate. He's done well at all the infield positions that we've bounced him around. He's proven that he's a very versatile kid, very mature. He reminds us of a Phil Wunderlich and Ryan Wright. Young kids that seem to grasp the game a little bit quicker than others.
Outfielder Logan Taylor has used his impressive speed in the outfield. The Lexington Catholic product was also a First Team All-State performer.
"Logan Taylor in the outfield has shown that if you can really run and you can compete in the batters box, then you're a valuable college player. He's done a nice job in the outfield."
The collection of freshmen pitchers have thrown well this fall.
"From the pitching side, all the young guys have shown enough to show that they are good enough to pitch at this level. Now they just need to be a little more consistent and get used to college baseball."
The Cardinals program hosted it's annual Scout Day last Friday, as more than 30 representatives from nearly every Major League Baseball organization covered the day’s activities.
"It's an opportunity to showcase your ball club, especially the older guys. It's good for them to play with that so-called pressure because it's commonplace in this program. There's going to be a lot of scouts here in the spring and you have to get used to that."
Many of the veterans performed well, including relief pitcher Nick Burdi. The junior had the scouts attention when he took the mound late in the scrimmage and proceeded to strike out the side.
"It looked like he was throwing the ball where he wanted and had good strike out pitches when he wanted to make those."
Burdi has been named as an MLB Top 10 prospect by PerfectGame.com.
Pitching coach Roger Williams and hitting coach Chris Lemonis have been selected by Baseball America as Co-Assistant Coaches of the Year. It marks the first time in the awards history that the award has been shared by two assistants.
"It speaks volumes. I've always said it to recruits, so it's nice when the college baseball world can back me up to what I've been saying. It says a lot about Tom Jurich and the commitment we have that we've held on to these two for so long to Roger, Chris and their families. There's not a day that goes by that I don't appreciate what Tom Jurich and the athletic department does for our program. He gives us the resources that we need and makes this an enjoyable place to coach. I think they've appreciated the way they've been treated the seven years that they've been here."
"I'm blessed and it was a big day when I got the phone call from Baseball America informing me that these two had been chosen. It deserves to be recognized across the country. It shows you how well respected that these two guys are, both with 20 years of experience. They're competitive, great teachers of the game and they are caring people."
The baseball program continues to enjoy great success on the recruiting trail. Since reaching the College World Series for the second time in program history, McDonnell and his staff have secured verbal commitments from a number of top-rated prospects throughout the region.
"Chris and Roger have always been tireless recruiters. I've always enjoyed the competitive side and realize the value of getting competitive players, so we all seem to work well together with that. There's no doubt that the momentum that we have with the expansion of the stadium, the trips to Omaha, the hosting of Regionals and then when it became public knowledge that we were going to the ACC, I think it gave us another leg to stand on for what we are selling here to the kids."
"We've done a great job of pin-pointing who we feel fits into this program. It is kids in this part of the country. We're a southern school in the midwest and we take that philosophy to heart. We want the best kids from Kentucky and then we want to spread our wings and want the best kids from Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Missouri. We open our arms and say, 'come south and play big time Division I baseball while still being close enough to family.' That formula has worked well for us."
HIGH SCHOOL CAMP
The baseball program's annual fall High School All-Star camp will be held October 19-20 at Jim Patterson Stadium. The camp provides an opportunity for the Cardinals coaching staff to work closely with players. It's also a chance for players to get a closer look at the U of L program and for the coaching staff to further evaluate prospects.
"Anytime you host a camp on your field it is a great opportunity to recruit, but with that being said, we are a teaching camp. If anything, it's a great time for these kids to evaluate us. We teach our style of play - it's uptempo and fast-paced. If there is a kid that we like, well then he just spent two days with us and he'll know what we are about, so hopefully he'll like us."
A handful of former and current Cardinals became recruiting priorities because of their play at the camp.
"From Jeffrey Thompson and Derek Self, to many players like Jeff Gardner, they came through our camp system. We didn't really know much about them until they ran out here on the field."
"What we are going to do is teach the game and we're going to motivate you, so when you come here and spend two days with us, you're going to leave fired up and motivated to work through the winter to get ready for the spring."