April 2, 2013

Ninth-ranked Cards set for showdown with No. 6 Wildcats

The Louisville-Kentucky rivalry is heated in any sport, but it is especially heated when both teams are highly ranked.

And when both baseball teams are in the top 10 - as No. 6 Kentucky and No. 9 Louisville are currently? Then the game becomes monumental, even during the regular season.

UofL hosts Kentucky Tuesday night at 6 at Jim Patterson Stadium.

"It is always an exciting time," UofL coach Dan McDonnell said. "It is such a big game for our fans, our administration, for the entire state, so we just try to get our kids to embrace it so we never downplay it. It is one game, one win, one loss. Either way as a team you are just trying to get better as the year goes on. Like I always said, if 40 people showed up that would be one thing, but when 4,000 show up it sends the message to our kids that it is an important game, so we embrace that and look forward to it."

Last year Louisville knocked off Kentucky twice, and both times the Wildcats came into the game ranked No. 1 in the country in one poll or another (there are six in college baseball).

Could this season's set of home-and-home games live up to the hype of last season? McDonnell thinks so.

"I think it is better," he said. "They are top 25 and we are top 25, we have both played really well. We are both on a good two-year run, kind of feeding off of last year's success, so I think it is even better than last year."

The Cardinals (22-5, 4-2 Big East) will likely start Kyle Funkhouser on the mound. The freshman from Illinois is 2-1 in eight appearances with a 1.59 ERA. He has given up just four earned runs in 22 2/3 innings, with 21 strikeouts and seven walks.

"(Funkhouser) is a talented freshman, and if you followed this game before I think Kentucky has thrown a freshman and it makes it a unique game because it isn't our No. 1 vs. their No.1," McDonnell said. "It is always talented kids, but they are just young kids. You never know what to expect. It seems like yesterday Jeff Thompson was throwing in this game, and unfortunately we can't start Jeff."

Thompson (5-0, 0.59 ERA) is now Louisville's ace starter on Saturdays. Funkhouser will likely be a weekend starter later in his career, but for now he'll get the ball in one of the most crucial mid-week games of the season. Kentucky (21-6, 6-3 SEC) is expected to throw freshman Kyle Cody (2-1, 6.48 ERA).

"I'm really excited," Funkhouser said. "This is a really good team, so this will be good experience for me. I pitched a lot of big games for my high school, but this will definitely be a different level. As of right now, no, I'm not (nervous), but we will see once this place is packed."

If Funkhouser can't get the job done, the Cardinals have an ample and talented bullpen to choose from. The Cardinals have used 15 different pitchers through their first 27 games, including 12 with five or more appearances. UofL is among the national leaders in ERA, with its staff ERA of 2.29 currently leading the Big East.

"We expect it," McDonnell said of his staff's success. "With (pitching) coach (Roger) Williams and our recruits and the talent level we have, the expectations are very high for this pitching staff, but you still have to go out there and do it. We have gotten a lot of quality starts this year, no doubt, which has given us momentum in the bullpen, and then (Nick) Burdi has been exciting on the back end as the closer so we are doing what we expected that we would do on the mound, but there is still a lot of baseball left."

The Cards bounced back from their first weekend series loss of the season (they dropped 2 of 3 to Rutgers two weeks ago) and a midweek loss at Indiana to sweep Notre Dame 3-0 last weekend.

McDonnell explained: "We knew Rutgers was better than their record, so it was a little misleading when you looked at their record and we didn't play great and they played great. Rutgers went on to (another) sweep last week in Big East play, so they are in first place in the league right now.

"And Indiana is a top-25 team, but we didn't play our best baseball. And it was nice to get Coco Johnson back in the lineup, and he kind of added another dimension to our lineup. (Michael) White, (Matt) Helms and (Jeff) Gardner did a nice job of filling in in left field, but if you followed this weekend series against Notre Dame, Coco was hot and it was good to get him back in the mix."

McDonnell noted the remarkable success UofL athletics had over the weekend, with a Final Four berth in men's basketball, a Sweet 16 upset of No. 1 Baylor by the UofL women and an NCAA champion in men's swimming.

"As we say, the train is going in the right direction, and we feel it is our duty to be on board and keep up with all the success," he noted. "But who is kidding who? ... It doesn't matter if nobody was winning. It is still Louisville vs. Kentucky, so it is always a big game."


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