LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- Following in the inglorious footsteps of Louisville's 2023 basketball team, the school's baseball program also wound up on the wrong side of history this year.
A season that started with high promise ended in a train wreck, with U of L collapsing spectacularly during the second half of the season and failing to make a conference tournament for the first time since 1970 when the Cardinals competed in the Missouri Valley Conference. This will also mark the second time in the last three years -- and only the third time in coach Dan McDonnell's 17 seasons -- that the Cards have failed to earn an NCAA Tournament berth.
The ACC Tournament is limited to 12 of the 14 teams and going into its final regular season game Saturday afternoon, Louisville needed a win over Florida State, coupled with a series win by NC State over Pitt, to get the last spot in the tourney. The Wolfpack did its part by sweeping the Panthers, but the Cards fell to the Seminoles 6-2, ending their season.
Now McDonnell is left to ponder during the offseason what went so terribly wrong. When the season began, U of L looked like a strong contender for a College World Series berth. The Cards were in everyone's top-20 and were picked as co-favorites with Wake Forest in the preseason poll to win their sixth ACC championship in eight years.
Instead, they collapsed early in the league season and wound up losing 15 of their last 18 ACC games and their last six series to finish 10-20, next to last in the standings one game ahead of FSU (19-21). They were 31-24 overall, their most losses since going 17-31-1 in 2000, seven seasons before McDonnell arrived to lead the program to unparalleled success. Hard to believe the Cards started 18-2, including victories over No. 12 Texas A&M and No. 10 TCU in Houston.
U of L got off to a good start in the final series, defeating the Noles 7-4 Thursday night before losing 7-4 Friday to set up the crucial Saturday game in Jim Patterson Stadium.
The finale against FSU was an example of why U of L struggled much of the last two months -- bad base running, bad defense, bad pitching and not enough from batters (5 hits) to make up for all those shortcomings. One runner was picked off first base and another was doubled off first on a fly ball to right field. Three fielders failed to make plays that led to runs and the pitchers allowed four doubles, a triple and four walks.
Afterwards, McDonnell somewhat puzzlingly questioned U of L's commitment to its baseball program, even though he is one of the highest paid baseball coaches in the country. He signed a contract for $1.1 million in 2019 that increases to $1.5 million by 2028. And he has often bragged about U of L's facilities and fan support.
After the loss he took the blame for the Cards' underachieving season and said everything in his program should be reviewed by the administrators, including his own performance. But then he added, in part, without getting into specifics:
"I always expect to be here. But I've been very vocal. Right? The past few years. . .If you came to my lead-off banquet and you re-watch (the video), there were some clear messages. I'm not going to get into it now but I've been very vocal and challenging over the last 12 months. Just look at the writing on the wall.
"Look at where this program has been and you walk through the dugouts, you walk under the stadium. You see what differently have we done since 2000-whatever? So, it's, you know, we want to be here. We love it here. But, again, I want to work for people and be with people and in a group that want to win as well. And don't tell me you want to win. Show me you want to win. That's all I asked for, and I think our fans asked for that. I think our players asked for that.
"So, as my phrase was at the lead-off banquet, 'Are you interested or are you committed?' I just I want to be at a place that's committed when it's all said and done. Because the kids were recruited to be at a place that's committed. Ultimately we're trying to get to Omaha and win a national championship. And ain't gonna happen unless we make a full commitment."