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Breaking Down the Louisville Regional: The NCAA Baseball Tournament - #1 Louisville

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Phil Wunderlich and Jason Esposito aren't friends, merely well-wishers - in that they don't wish each other any immediate harm.
Phil Wunderlich and Jason Esposito aren't friends, merely well-wishers - in that they don't wish each other any immediate harm.

The Louisville Cardinals should be familiar to a Commodore baseball fan by now. We've seen these guys three times in the past 12 months, and even beat them twice. Yet, despite the relative success, it has been hollow since Louisville is the team that got to advance to the Super Regional in 2009. Now, they're the team hosting Vanderbilt - again - in a NCAA Regional.

However, both teams will be different from when we last saw them should a rematch be in the works. Vanderbilt surged after beating Louisville in 17 innings May 11, and then limped to the finish line with a disappointing series loss to Arkansas (goodbye, Regional hosting job) and 1-2 record in the SEC Tournament. Louisville, on the other hand, will be without their coach for the first three games of the Regional and also suffered through a tough conference tournament, losing a pair of games to eventual champion Saint John's. However, leading up to that, they reeled off a 6-1 stretch that cemented their status as one of the country's elite teams.

Louisville - #1 Seed - Ranked #10 by USA Today - 48-12 - Big East Conference

Louisville lost only one series in all of 2010 - to formerly ranked Pitt (who later crapped themselves out of the NCAA Tournament altogether) and was generally considered the class of the Big East. They defeated teams like Ole Miss, UConn, and Saint John's in series play, though their Big East schedule afforded them few elite opponents. The Cardinals excelled, going 17-3 in games decided by two runs or fewer leading up to the conference tournament. Their toughness and stellar record led the team to climb as high as #6 in the USA Today polls for the season.

The Cardinals' offense powered their way to a 7.5 runs per game average, which leads all teams in the Regional (Vanderbilt is second with 7.45) and their team ERA of 3.71 trails only Vandy in that category (Illinois State and Saint Louis make up the tail end of the group, at 5.35 and 6.43, respectively). Louisville boasts a legit three man rotation, led by ace Thomas Royse and solid second starter Justin Amlung, who combined for a 14-2 record this season. Neil Holland is the team's rock in the ninth inning though, as opposing batters are hitting just .153 against him in a 16 save season.

At the plate, Louisville boasts a balanced attack led by five players who are long ball threats. Opposing pitchers will have a tough time getting though their 2-6 spots in the lineup, as each player hits over .330, has hit at least 12 home runs, and is responsible for at least 47 RBI. Despite a dropoff in talent following their big five, it's safe to say that the Cardinals have the scariest offense in the upcoming Regional.

Pitcher to watch: Thomas Royse. Fortunately, it seems as though Vanderbilt will avoid an early match-up with Royse if he takes the mound for Game One against Saint Louis, but it stands to reason that a pitcher of his caliber will see as much time as needed in this do-or-die Regional. Royse has a sub-par outing in his first start of the Big East Tournament but was the Cardinals' #1 throughout the season.

The junior righthander has solid control and is able to work deep into games, but there's some concern that he's wearing down towards the end of the season. He's winless over his last three starts with an ERA of 5.03. Over that stretch opponents have been better at putting the ball in play against him, and though the team went 2-1 overall, there must be some concern that an opponent with a solid offense could rattle him.

Batter(s) to watch: Ryan Wright and Phil Wunderlich. Make no mistake - these guys can mash. The 4-5 combination in the Louisville batting lineup, Wright and Wunderlich have propelled this offense with outstanding hitting. Wright has been deadly from the clean-up spot, driving in 77 runs while scoring 57 of his own. Part of the reason why he's crossing home plate so much is because of Wunderlich, who has blasted 20 home runs and has 58 RBI of his own. These guys put in work on the basepaths too - 21 stolen bases between the two of them.

Overall Summary: Louisville's dense lineup should be able to make short work of the shaky pitching presented by #3 and #4 seeds Illinois State and Saint Louis - but Vanderbilt will present a much tougher match-up. However, the Cardinals have proven that they excel in close games, and they'll be looking to show that May's game at Vanderbilt (in which they blew two save opportunities whilst up by two runs) was an aberration. Backed by their hometown crowd, they're the hands-down favorite to win it all - but they still must have winced a bit to see that Vandy would be making the trip up I-65 to see them again.

Look for the Cardinals to match up with the Commodores at least twice after winning some high scoring games. Though their Big East schedule left some question marks, this is an extremely talented team that has done well in pressure-filled situations. With a hosting shot at a Super Regional looming, this is going to be a charged up and emotional team that will be tough for anyone to beat twice.