The alarm bells have sounded for quite some time: Louisville is coming.
One team on every schedule sets the bar. Fans of a certain program measure successes by the answer to the question “Would we have beaten (whichever team poses the stiffest challenge) today?”
The name that completes that question changes over time. For Clemson, it was South Carolina, then Virginia, then North Carolina. Now that all those series are in the rear view mirror, the name is Louisville. Quite frankly, it was probably Louisville all along.
Since joining the ACC in 2015, the Cardinals have been dominant. For fans of college baseball, this comes as no surprise, but the extent to which Louisville has owned the league is staggering—even for observers familiar with the excellence of the program.
In three seasons, Louisville has a 67-17 record in conference games. That’s a winning percentage of .798, which is insane. The Cardinals have won the Atlantic Division (and finished with the best record in the conference) in consecutive seasons, and they have a four-game lead on Clemson with six games to play, making a third straight title seem likely at this point.
Dan McConnell has built a machine in northern Kentucky capable of winning a national title every year. What he’s done is impressive. Still, though, it seems a lot of fans have exalted his program to an unreasonable level. They’ve put it on a pedestal that sits higher than it should. Louisville is elite, but its level of play can be matched or exceeded.
Take Friday’s series opener, for instance. The Tigers lost 4-2, but it was clear they felt they were the better team. Of the six runs scored in the ballgame, five came courtesy of Clemson–two of its own runs and three of Louisville’s.
A pair of errors made the difference in the contest. A misplayed grounder with two outs in the third allowed two runs to score, and an errant throw to first in the next frame allowed a third unearned run to cross the plate.
Aside from those two plays, the Tigers defended brilliantly from start to finish. Charlie Barnes battled potential number one overall draft pick Brendan McKay pitch-for-pitch and lasted one inning longer, allowing only one earned run over six frames. Patrick Andrews and Alex Schnell combined to throw three one-hit innings of relief.
Clemson’s offense put as much pressure on Louisville’s Friday defense as anyone has all year long. The Tigers pounded 11 hits and drew seven walks in the loss. They knocked McKay out of the game after five innings, which tied for his shortest outing of the season. The man who replaced him, righty Sam Bordner, had not allowed a run in 17 appearances spanning 30 innings. The Tigers roughed him up for two runs on three hits in two-thirds of an inning.
Ultimately, simply creating chances doesn’t win games, and Clemson didn’t finish enough rallies. In fact, the 16 runners the Tigers stranded tied a season high. From the fourth inning until the eighth, they stranded at least two runners in every inning and scored in just one of those five frames.
Facing Louisville’s best pitchers and keeping its explosive offense at bay wasn’t good enough. From Monte Lee to Barnes to Andrew Cox, whose four-hit day was the catalyst for several of those rallies, it was clear the Tigers felt they were better and freely ceded an opportunity for victory with missed opportunities.
“We’ve done this a lot of times, especially in my career,” Cox said. “We drop a tough one on Friday, win on Saturday, and then Sunday’s the rubber match. You’re tied 1-1, so anything can happen.
“I don’t have an answer for you, but I know one thing is for sure: We’ll be ready to do it again tomorrow.”
After one game, it’s clear this is not a big brother-little brother series. It’s a series of peers, and even down a game, Clemson looks like a team ready and willing to put up a fight.