The two teams have made the Battle of the Barrel a must-see game to watch every April, but that non-conference showdown has just been a primer for some heavy postseason action. The Commodores and Cardinals have met in four of the last six NCAA Tournaments. That familiarity has bred a special brand of contempt between the two programs. Louisville fans won't be happy to see Vandy on Saturday - and vice versa.
Louisville's hot-tempered play hasn't just been limited to games against Tim Corbin's team. The Cardinals emptied their bench twice against in-state rival Kentucky before winning their Regional. Expect that intensity to ramp up in Omaha, especially amongst veterans who remember just how much they hate the guys standing in the dugout across from them. Saturday's matchup may be a well-mannered affair, but there's an equal chance that Tim Corbin leaves TD Ameritrade Stadium looking for a local trophy shop that can mount Alex Chittenden's right arm for him to take back to Nashville.
2014 Record Against Vanderbilt: 1-0 in Nashville...:(
Best Win: A three-game sweep at #10 Houston. The Cardinals haven't faced any especially tough tests in the postseason, but a big weekend in Texas showed exactly what this team is capable of when everything clicks. The Cards shut down Houston's big bats to deliver 20 percent of their regular season losses in one series. After two tight games, they blew up for 10 runs in the series finale to prove that they can win pitchers' duels or slugfests against a premier opponent.
Worst Loss: A 4-2 May loss to #222 Temple. The Cardinals were rounding into peak condition late in the season, but a late defeat to lowly Temple set the template for an impending AAC Tournament exit. The Owls took advantage of UL's streaky offense, something that #137 South Florida would do weeks later to knock the Cards down to the loser's bracket of the conference tourney. Louisville is a talented team, but they've been prone to power outages on offense - and those have led to some uncharacteristically bad losses in 2014.
Batter to Be Wary Of: Like Stanford, Louisville has four players at the top of the order who get on base at around a 40 percent clip. Cole Sturgeon, Alex Chittenden, and Grant Kay have all given the 'Dores trouble this year, but left fielder Jeff Gardner is the guy most likely to have Vandy fans cursing on Saturday. Gardner led the Cardinals in home runs (nine) and RBI (68) this spring while batting .321.
Pitchers to Watch: Kyle Funkhouser is a legitimate, top-of-the-rotation ace. He destroyed Kent State with eight shutout innings to open up the NCAA Tournament, then returned to lead UL over Kennesaw State in the Super Regional with seven more quality innings. No, those aren't exactly frightening opponents, but K-Funk has the goods. He went 13-2 this season while holding batters to a .198 average against him. He'll put Bryan Reynolds's hot streak to the test in a likely Game One matchup.
Nick Burdi was the first reliever chosen in the 2014 MLB Amateur Draft, and for good reason. He's nigh untouchable in the ninth inning, and now he's pitching "pissed" after falling to the second round last Thursday. He rung up a sparkling .051 ERA and struck out 62 batters in 35.1 innings this year, including a two-inning, five-strikeout showing in this year's Battle of the Barrel.
Key Stat: Louisville's aggression on the basepaths has defined their high octane offensive attack. UL was more than 250 percent more likely to steal bases than their opponents, swiping 132 bags on 166 attempts this season. Two of those came against the Commodores when these teams met in May.
Historical Stat: Vanderbilt has owned Louisville in the regular season over the past six years, posting a 5-1 record against the Cardinals. In fact, if you open the record books up to all time, Vandy has a 21-7 advantage over the Cards. However, the majority of UL's wins have come when it counts the most.
Despite their in-season rivalry, these two teams have actually faced each other more often in the postseason, and UL holds a 4-3 advantage in that series. Louisville has advanced to the next round of the NCAA Tournament twice against Vandy, while the 'Dores have only returned the favor once. Saturday's matchup will give them the chance to even the score on the biggest stage they've had yet.
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