Defense drives Louisville to super regionals

June, 1, 2009
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- In the locker room before the Louisville Regional championship game against Vanderbilt, Louisville coach Dan McDonnell showed his team a highlight video of home runs from the program's 2007 NCAA tournament run.

The Cardinals became a national story that year by tearing the cover off the ball, riding big home runs all the way to Omaha for the first time in school history. They launched plenty of long balls this season, too, finishing 14th in the nation in runs scored. But through the first three games of the regional tournament in their own ballpark, they had managed just one homer.

"I was trying to instill some confidence in our guys and let them know that you've got to swing your way through the postseason," McDonnell said. "Somebody had to step up and take the pressure off."

That somebody turned out to be a true freshman. Outfielder Ryan Wright blasted a three-run home run off Vanderbilt starter Mike Minor in the fourth inning to power Louisville to a 5-3 victory. The Cardinals will take on national No. 2 seed Cal State Fullerton in this weekend's super regionals.

Wright knew that Minor -- who appeared to be tiring while pitching on just two days' rest -- had been relying on his changeup to that point. So with a 3-1 count, Wright looked for the changeup all the way.

"He left one over the middle of plate, and I didn't miss it," Wright said. "You could tell the crowd was kind of waiting, waiting for something to happen."

Even with Wright's big hit, though, the Louisville sluggers stayed mostly quiet. This was a different route through the regionals than the Cardinals took in 2007. They got great pitching all weekend and -- except for a slew of blunders in Sunday's 8-4 loss to Vanderbilt -- played terrific defense.

"We are a pretty scrappy club, I guess," said Wright, who entered Monday with just one hit in 10 tournament at-bats. "We're very offensive, but when the offense isn't going, we just like to scrape it together. I can't credit our pitching and defense enough."

Vanderbilt was in a pitching bind because it played the extra game in the losers' bracket, and Minor asked for the ball. McDonnell went a different way, calling on another true freshman -- right-hander Tony Zych.

Zych had made only two starts all season, but both of them came in pressurized spots. He beat Ohio State in his first career start, then was the winning pitcher in the Big East championship game against Connecticut.

"I was definitely a little nervous because it was a big start," Zych said. "But I felt good when I got out there."

Zych got the win by allowing just two runs in six innings. Reliever Gabriel Shaw escaped a seventh-inning jam by striking out two after Vandy put runners on second and third with one out. And Justin Marks, the Cards ace who won Friday's game against Middle Tennessee, tossed a perfect ninth inning.

"It was the exact opposite from [Sunday] night," McDonnell said. "We pitched, made plays and capitalized with some timely hits."

McDonnell awards a T-shirt to the key contributor in each victory. To illustrate how Louisville excelled at the little things, he gave Monday's shirt to shortstop John Dao.

Dao was 0-for-10 in the tournament before he roped a seventh-inning RBI triple that proved to be the game winner. But even more important, he picked up everything at short all night, at one point even grabbing a chopper with his bare hand and throwing out a runner at first.

"Watching him out there was fun," Marks said of Dao. "I hadn't seen him play that kind of defense. That was some MLB stuff he was doing out there."

The Cardinals (47-16) have won 18 of their past 21 games and showed this weekend that they can get it done without a bevy of big flies. Of course, they wouldn't mind returning to those hard-hitting roots in the super regionals.

"This says that we can pitch really well and play some great defense," catcher Jeff Arnold said. "Hopefully, we'll get our bats going and make it a little easier on ourselves."

Brian Bennett | email

ESPN Staff Writer



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