Louisville Baseball Game Notes
By Adam Pruiett, UofLsports.com
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - You know baseball season has arrived when talk about streaks begins in earnest. And in that regard, the 15th-ranked Louisville baseball team has more reason than most to anticipate opening day. The Cardinals are 6-0 all-time in the Big Ten/BIG EAST Challenge, and they will look to keep their streak alive starting Friday in the fourth edition of the tournament as the 2012 season gets underway.
Louisville opens the three-day event at 10 a.m., ET Friday in Clearwater, Fla., against Minnesota at Jack Russell Memorial Stadium. The Cardinals will then meet Illinois at 4 p.m., Saturday and Michigan State at 10 a.m., Sunday in St. Petersburg, Fla., at Al Lang Stadium and Walter Fuller Complex, respectively.
Louisville will board a flight to the Sunshine State on Thursday. After a rigorous offseason spent in the weight room and honing their skills, the Cardinals are eager to take the field in an official capacity.
"I can't even explain the excitement I'm about to have (Thursday) when I get on this plane," senior co-captain and pitcher Travis Tingle (Louisville, Ky./Cleveland State CC) said on the eve of the trip. "I just can't wait. We're all hungry, we're all ready to go. We want to try to get this program back to where it was. Last year we had a down year, and we really don't want that again."
Indeed, the Challenge presents the first opportunity for Louisville to begin erasing the memory of last year's disappointing 32-29 campaign. The Cardinals failed to make the postseason for the first time under head coach Dan McDonnell, who is entering his sixth season as the team's skipper. Every ball club experiences a down year at some point, but the Cardinals want to make sure last season's output was an aberration, not the start of a trend.
"After last year, it's a big incentive for this year for every player that is back and the incoming freshmen to have some motivation," said senior co-captain and pitcher Derek Self (Cave City, Ky./Caverna HS). "We don't want to have another year like that. I feel like this year is different. We have a lot more mature players and we're looking for a good season."
Justin Amlung (Louisville, Ky./St. Xavier HS), the BIG EAST Preseason Pitcher of the Year, will be the opening day starter Friday for the Cardinals against Minnesota (25-24 in 2011). The junior right-hander will look to duplicate his performance in last year's Challenge, when he received Most Valuable Pitcher honors after throwing 7.2 shutout innings in a 2-0 win over Ohio State.
"Ever since the fall, Friday was the day I was waiting for," said Amlung, who went 10-2 last season with a 2.31 ERA and 80 strikeouts. "I want to start on a good note and go from there the rest of the season."
Jeff Thompson (Greenville, Ind./Floyd Central HS) is set to follow Amlung as Louisville's starting pitcher Saturday against Illinois (30-27 in 2011), an NCAA Regional squad last season. The sophomore right-hander was named the Top Pro Prospect in the New England Collegiate Baseball League after an eye-opening summer.
Tingle is slated to take the mound Sunday against defending Big Ten co-champion Michigan State (36-21), which was selected by the conference's coaches as the preseason favorite to capture the Big Ten title. Tingle, a 6-foot-5 right-hander, earned all-star honors in the Coastal Plain League over the summer.
Louisville's 2011 recruiting class will be unveiled at the Challenge. While the class was ranked 11th nationally by Collegiate Baseball newspaper and 12th by Baseball America, McDonnell intends to ease his freshmen into the season. It will be a stark contrast to last year, when circumstances dictated that McDonnell start up to five freshmen at a time, experience that should benefit the sophomore-heavy Cardinals this season.
"We don't say their names day in and day out, but we know behind the scenes these guys are going to play," McDonnell said of his freshmen class. "I think the pitchers are going to get the first opportunity because they are talented, and then there are some position players in there that will get some opportunities here and there. But the nice thing is you don't have to lean on the freshman hitters like we had to lean on a lot of those guys last year."
Junior college transfer Nick Ratajczak (Joliet, Ill.) is particularly looking forward to the opening weekend trip after starring at Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, Fla., his first two college seasons. The Cardinals infielder recalled suiting up for Gulf Coast for season openers in late January because of the accommodating weather and said he's been itching to get back to Florida.
"I'm pumped to get down there and smell that Florida scent. I miss it," Ratajczak said. "Before I went down there in high school, people would say, `If you had to pick a state to live in, (what would it be)?' I'd say California. I went down to Florida and then once you leave there, you're like, `I've got to live there some day.' The experience I had down there was unbelievable. The weather, atmosphere, seeing palm trees, wearing T-shirts, sunglasses, shorts and flip flops every day, it really was like a paradise."
It's a paradise the Cardinals hope comes with three wins to lead off the season. Minnesota is Louisville's only common opponent in relation to last year's Challenge. The Cardinals completed their 2011 sweep with a 3-0 win over the Gophers following a 6-3 victory over Michigan and a 2-0 triumph over Ohio State. Louisville also knocked off Minnesota (5-4) in its first appearance in the Challenge in 2010, earning the sweep with wins over Michigan (2-0) and Michigan State (17-6).
The Challenge represents a chance for BIG EAST teams to root for each other before trying to beat up on each other come conference play in late March.
"The BIG EAST is full of good pitching and great competition," Ratajczak said. "We're ready to take it to the Big Ten and show them what we're about.
"Pitching, defense, hitting - I think we're 100 percent ready. We've had a lot of success in the fall and so far this spring in practice. We're very anxious to get out there and get down to Florida with that warm weather, start playing some schools and get one step closer to our dream of Omaha."