LOUISVILLE — University of Louisville second baseman Logan Johnson has a succinct description for the heady atmosphere the surprising Cardinals find themselves in this week: "It's surreal," he said. And it could get even more surreal in the next few days.
UofL (44-21) is already in uncharted territory, having won its first NCAA regional championship, and now the No. 21 Cards are just two victories away from playing in the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
They'll take on No. 14 Oklahoma State (41-19) in the nationally-televised Super Regional, a best-of-three series beginning Friday afternoon at 2 o'clock in Jim Patterson Stadium, with another game scheduled at noon Saturday and a third, if necessary, at 4 p.m. Sunday.
"We're just trying to take it all in," Johnson said. "We kind of joke among ourselves, 'Is this really happening'? and those kinds of things. It's an exciting experience. I really couldn't have dreamed of this. It's been amazing, awesome."
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UofL, which finished second in the Big East Conference during the regular season, then lost to Rutgers in the championship game of the league tournament, got to this point by winning three straight elimination games in the Columbia, Mo., regional after falling into the loser's bracket with a second-game loss to No. 11 Missouri (7-5).
Then came a come-from-behind 8-7 victory over Miami and back-to-back upsets of the host Tigers, 4-3 and 16-6. And the thrill ride isn't over yet.
"I can't believe it," centerfielder Boomer Whiting said. "It's been an emotional roller-coaster, and we're still climbing."
UofL's first-year coach, Dan McDonnell — a former assistant at The Citadel and Ole Miss — said his message to his players this week is to relax and enjoy the moment.
"Omaha would be icing on the cake, so that's the way I want our kids to take it," said McDonnell, who made a World Series appearance as a player for The Citadel. "Let's enjoy where we're at right now. Nobody can ever take away from you that you've won an NCAA championship. You'll take that with you forever, so enjoy what's going on right now and we'll see where we end up. This is where we've wanted to be all year, we're finally here, let's just play and have fun."
The Cards got this far by treating the opposing pitchers in Columbia as if they were Little Leaguers. UofL collected 73 hits, including 22 for extra bases, and batted .378.
Whiting, one of 10 seniors on the roster, led the way with a .474 average. He also made several outstanding defensive plays and stole three bases to boost his Louisville school record and nation-leading total to 72 (in 84 attempts) on the season. That's nine more than the entire Oklahoma State team.
"Coach McDonnell was a base-stealer in college and this off-season he worked on that with me," Whiting said. "It's not only speed, you have to know the tendencies of pitchers and catchers, and I've got a lot of freedom out there."
The Cards got hitting up and down the lineup in the regional, with redshirt freshman third baseman Chris Dominguez putting on a one-man show in the final by slamming two home runs, collecting seven RBIs and scoring four times. In all, he drove in 11 runs, getting four homers, two doubles and a triple.
Designated hitter Jorge Castillo also had 11 RBIs while improving his team-best hitting streak to nine games. No wonder the Louisville players are eager to start swinging the bat again.
"When we get going, we feel like we can hit all day," Johnson said. "We were glad to get the Friday-Saturday-Sunday Regional," McDonnell said. "The timing might be perfect — just a little bit of time off, but not too much. We're hot right now so we'd rather keep going. The offense we've seen at times be so explosive has really come alive."
Leftfielder Isaiah Howes leads UofL on the season with a .392 average and 59 RBIs. One statistic that stands out is the Cards have been hit by 98 pitches, nearly twice as many as OSU. Johnson has been nailed 30 times this season, tied for fourth in NCAA single-season history, and he has an amazing .492 on-base percentage.
Based on Louisville's hot bats and OSU's offensive performance over the course of the season the series could shape up as a slugfest. OSU has hit 17 more home runs than UofL and the Cowboys rank eighth in batting average in NCAA Division I at .327, ninth in scoring (7.9 runs per game) and seventh in homers (76). Second baseman Tyler Mach (.401., 16 HRs, 81 RBIs) and rightfielder Corey Brown (.339, 21 HRs, 70 RBIs) are OSU's most dangerous weapons. Outfielder Ty Wright is batting .411 and had his Big 12 Conference record 15-game hitting streak snapped in the regional.
OSU won all three games in the Fayetteville, Ark., regional, including a pair of wins over No. 7 Arkansas.
"The 16 teams at this point can all swing the bat, pitch and defend, and Oklahoma State can definitely score runs," McDonnell said. "All I know is to come out of that Arkansas regional you had to have done some special things. Obviously, they're a very talented club and they're playing well at the right time, as we are."
Getting first crack at corraling the Cowboys will be junior right-hander Zack Pitts (16 starts,9-3, 2.37 ERA), the Big East Pitcher of the Year. Pitts has worked 110 innings and limited opponents to a .220 average. OSU is expected to counter with senior right-hander Oliver Odle (15 starts, 7-4, 4.39 ERA). Freshman left-hander Justin Marks (16 starts, 8-2, 2.61 ERA) from Owensboro Catholic High School, the Big East Rookie of the Year, will open for UofL Saturday.
While this is all new to the Cards, the Cowboys have a strong NCAA baseball tradition. They're making their 35th appearance in the tournament, which ranks fifth on the NCAA all-time list. They are 91-39 all-time in NCAA Regional play, with the 91 wins also ranking fifth, and they have reached the College World Series 19 times, fourth-most in NCAA history. All reserved seats for the regional sold out quickly and a standing-room-only crowd of more than 4,000 — many of whom will be on the berm behind the left field fence — is expected.
"We're going to use every nook and cranny," UofL sports information director Kenny Klein said.