Notebook: Louisville Baseball Concludes 2020 Fall Season
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Following Louisville Baseball's conclusion of their fall season as well as their 15th annual Pizza Bowl intrasquad scrimmage series, head coach Dan McDonnell took time to speak with the media regarding the program and their fall season.
McDonnell also talked about former star catcher Will Smith, who became the first Cardinal in program history to appear in a World Series, doing so for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Below is the transcript from McDonnell's press conference as well as the video:
Welcome everyone, I hope everybody's doing well. So far, knock on wood, so far so good. We got through our individuals, we got through our six weeks in the fall, got all our scrimmages in, our scout day, our Pizza Bowl. I know it's a little bit crazy in the outside world, but from our bubble here, this has been as normal of fall as it's been, which is good. We still got four weeks left on the field to get better. As many of you, we've been celebrating our guys in the big leagues, right into the postseason, right into the World Series. As soon as we're off this call, I have the privilege of going to my first World Series to cheer on (former UofL star catcher) Will Smith and the Dodgers.
(On what Will Smith's success means for the program)
I think as coaches, we're always learning. I tell our players all the time that we learn a lot from them, especially the great ones. It reinforces, I think, what a great job our program does. Coach (Eric) Snider was his catching coach, him and Coach (Adam) Vrable in the world of hitting, and Coach (Roger) Williams as the pitching coach. Will got coached by all those guys, as well as myself when it comes to the base running side. More so than just the coaches: the resources, the support system we have in place - so I'm really proud of that. But, you always have to give the most credit to the student-athlete. I've been asked a lot of questions about Will, and it sounds cliche is, but we're learning as coaches. I tell our players, it's amazing the guys that make it. You know the All-Americans between the lines, more times than not are All-Americans outside the field of play. So, the Adam Duvall's, the Chad Green's, the Nick Solak's - I mean these are guys that you trust them with your family, you would trust them with your kids, you trust them with your bank accounts. That's the type of people these guys are. That smile you see from Will Smith on TV, man, that's that's genuine and that's real, and we're smiling along with them.
(On the effort and the competition during the fall baseball season)
That's the reason we do the pizza bowl, is the competition. We just can't create that kind of atmosphere on a normal scrimmage, even though we'll do it before a football game or after, and in normal years we'll open up the gates and try to get fans in here. But, the Pizza Bowl, when you put on the uniform - and for those that don't know, the reason it's called a Pizza Bowl, it was like football. It was a one game event. It was such a powerful event for an intersquad (game) that we said 'why are we just doing this once, why not do two out of three or three out of five, or four to seven?' So we kept the name Pizza Bowl, but in drafting the teams, putting on the uniforms, putting on the lights, having the PA system, having the music, and this year having the radio station on 93.9, it was a great event. For me, I got to see the atmosphere, the pressure, the excitement from the dugout, and as we tell our kids all the time: you watch those big leaguers in the postseason, man, the joy, the excitement, enthusiasm they're playing with. Our season is shorter than a big league season, and we almost have to play like that the entire year if definitely not for our postseason. But I got to see a little bit of that excitement and enthusiasm in the Pizza Bowl. We had a walk-off win, we had a celebration on the field, we had the water being sprayed everywhere, we had the heckling back and forth from the dugouts. All the things that you kind of get in a spring game. We got as close to that as we could in our Pizza Bowl.
(On Will Smith's transformation at Louisville)
I try to educate our fans, and I always talk about where I'm not patient off the field. I have a lot of patience in the baseball world. The Will Smith story is very common. You hear about the Brendan McKay's, you don't have many freshmen All-Americans that just do what he did for three years. You have more Will Smith's. You have more guys that hit .250-.270 as freshmen, you have the Burdi brothers who have 5.00 ERAs and limited innings as freshmen. Then in that sophomore year, or into the junior year, you see the explosion. They get comfortable with college baseball, the scouting reports, the work ethic, working out in the morning, their bodies physically, mentally, the coaches help them make adjustments. It's just a combination of - we just need time just. Just give us time and don't get too worked up when a guy has a 5.00 ERA or hits .250. If they got talent and they're willing to work, they're going to get better. So for every All-American on that wall out there, I guess outside of McKay, the other 20 something - they didn't do it in their freshman year. They did it in their sophomore or usually their junior year.
(On what changed specifically with Will Smith)
Selective is a good word, because what happens is - and I have freshmen right now if you watch this in a Pizza Bowl game or scrimmage - you see some of these young hitters swinging at a ball that's bouncing off the plate. They just look like they might not be good enough to play here. But, they become selective as they get stronger, they can wait a little more, and they're just used to the 88-95 mile an hour (fastball) with the 78-86 mile an hour sliders, and just they just get more accustomed to it and they just get better and better. You see sometimes these organizations, they get criticized for trading a player or this and that - more times than not they realize it takes time. It just takes time. So a combination of getting stronger, getting more comfortable, getting the reps you need that you just don't have until you get into this type of program, as well as being selective and recognizing. Will's done a little bit everything, and you have to keep doing it. That's what we talk about. You don't just get to the big leagues, kick your feet up and arrive. The Chad Green's, Adam Engel's the Adam Duvall's, the Will Smith's - they have to work in the offseason as if they hadn't made it to the big leagues, and they're still working on those so called weaknesses or the traps that they can fall into whether it's being a hitter or a pitcher.
(On how the freshman performed during fall ball and who exceeded expectations overall)
Before I talk about freshmen, because I always tell our coaches, let's not get too high or too low. Some of these poor kids just really struggle. It doesn't mean they're not good players and they're not going to be good players. I think the theme of this fall was, who are the guys that are going to emerge from from being regulars - whether it's an everyday player or an everyday pitcher in the mix - who's going to take the next step. You have to look at our pitching and our potential starting pitching: a Glenn Albanese goes from a talented reliever spot starter, to looking like he has a chance to win a weekend job, and if he stays healthy and has a good spring can be a very high draft pick. You look at Michael Kirian, who had established himself as the closer and I think he'd been an All-American last year in a normal year, I think his six saves go down as six of the easiest saves I'd seen in a long time, he's emerging looks like a weekend starter. Adam Elliott, who is another very reliable reliever, you can tell where I'm going with this theme. When you lose Reid Detmers and Bobby Miller, the weekend starters, and the reason that Gerrit Cole's and those guys get those crooked numbers with all the zeros - the premium on starting pitching and how much they talk about starting pitching. Albanese made the jump, Kirian made the jump, Adam Elliott made the jump, which were three right there. You know what you got in Luke Smith, you feel good about Michael Prosecky because he had three or four starts in a shortened season. To me, those were the highlight guys of the fall thinking of starting pitching which means: 'okay Dan, you just mentioned your top relievers are now possibly being starters. Everybody loves to know about the closer, who are the back end guys?'. We've got three or four options there, but I think Jared Poland took the lead. Jared pitched as a freshman, was more of a setup guy. Actually struggled as a sophomore, if you want to call it the sophomore slump, but he was also trying to win the second base job. Now he looks like 'okay, that's the Roger Williams type of closer' that we seem to have every year, as well as he's still trying to win the second base job. But Jared Poland looks to be the front runner as one of the closers, because you need more than one as you as you noticed in these postseason games. The old fashioned, the Mariano Rivera's, especially with the way the format is now, and you'd like to have Mariano Rivera but you kind of got to have two or three guys that are able to close the game out.
(On if he sees Brendan McKay settling for just pitching or hitting due to his recent surgery)
It's a great question, I don't know. We always put probably pitching a little ahead of hitting, that's what we've been talking about a lot on this call. The value of the left handed pitcher, you kinda always feel like that's a little ahead of the hitting. The nice thing is, you can always fall back on the hitting. He's a first round hitter out of college. So if something doesn't go well with the shoulder, I think he can be a Gold Glove first baseman and hold his own in the big leagues as a hitter. I'm assuming, I'd be confident and saying you got to try to get the pitching back and and that's where you're hoping he's going to be able to come back. Whether he'd been in the rotation, or my gosh the shortage of arms, I feel like he would have started one of these postseason games and his value would have been used throughout this postseason. Obviously not a knock on anybody they've been pitching, but you feel like man he could have only helped them if he was healthy right now.
(On if he thinks former Louisville players in the World Series will become a regular thing)
Well, I hope so. I don't know about annual because it is so hard to get there. For me, what's annual is we got big leaguers on rosters every summer. That means we should have big leaguers in the postseason every year, and this year we had (Adam) Engel with the White Sox, (Chad) Green with the Yankees, (Adam) Duvall with the Braves and (Will) Smith. When Duvall and Smith matched up in the National League Championship Series, the feeling was 'hey, looks like we're gonna have a guy in the World Series this year.' That was really cool. I do feel like we're gonna have chances every year because of how many guys will be in the big leagues from summer to summer.
(On getting to go watch Will Smith in Game 2 of the World Series)
I've got to give credit because I got asked by Steve Trager and Republic Bank, they actually sponsor the Rays. So, I might be getting a ticket through the Rays but I got to kind of root for the Dodgers. So it could be like a Seinfeld episode, I might get kicked out of the stadium tonight depending on what seats I'm in. But I gave Will the heads up, and it's kind of a celebration. We always try to see our big leaguers when they first make it. Coach Williams will go see Josh Rogers when he got called up, Mundorf actually went and saw McKay when he got called up and I went and saw Nick Solak. For one of us to be there, I walked in after practice yesterday and I said to the coaches that I got invited to go, what do you think? Every coach was like 'you got to go. You got to be there.' It's an honor that I get to go just cheer on one of our own and represent not just the baseball team or the University, but the city of Louisville. This is one of, like Duvall and some of our other big leaguers like (Dean) Kiekheifer & (Kyle) McGrath and those local guys that make it. This is one of your own. This is a KCD product, a kid who grew up in Louisville, played at the University of Louisville and now that young smiling fresh face is on TV. It's hard for him to not be a fan favorite. We should all celebrate that.
(On Will Smith's recruitment to Louisville)
I remember most recruiting stories. People are asking me about (Reid) Detmers and some of the others, but as the head coach I'm honestly not the one in the woods doing the labor behind the scenes. That's the assistant coaches. But I remember the conversations with Will, I remember when he was being recruited by three or four other schools and there was actually a Florida school in the mix. You're always worried that a kid might want to go to Florida. I was at a fundraiser golf tournament down in Bowling Green, and I told my group: 'guys, you got to play without me, I have to talk to this prospect'. I remember standing under a tree and trying to - I was throwing everything I had at will. I was running out of pitches as to why he should come to Louisville. I usually have to lean on the guilt about leaving your mom and your dad and your family and your friends in your back yard. Fortunately he loves his family. I can picture his dad at every scrimmage. His family got to enjoy this, and it's true though. You tell local kids or kids from this part of the country: I just have a hard time with you leaving this city or this part of the country, when your family - it's 56 games, it's 20 scrimmages in the fall. So yeah, I remember that recruiting time and going after him hard. He actually played for the Ohio elite, which is one of the first places he started catching. He was more of a shortstop/pitcher at KCD and in youth ball around here. We saw him catch with an AAU team out of Ohio and we thought 'Wow, he's pretty darn athletic'. We were blessed he chose to stay home.
(On how he'll manage with a larger than normal roster in 2021)
It actually makes it very difficult, in a good way. We have depth. Last year when (Alex) Binelas & (Lucas) Dunn went down to start the season, and you're playing at another top five program opening weekend (Ole Miss). We lose that series, but we win the first game. We have to figure out 'who's gonna play third, who's gonna play second' and we start shuffling guys around. Jared Poland stepped up, Tim Borden stepped up guys, Ben Metzinger stepped up. I remember thinking we're going to be a better club because of this. Now we know we have that depth built in. I just got to keep these guys going. I got to make sure they're improving. I got to not let them get too high when they're in the lineup, and don't get too low when they're not in the lineup. Injuries are gonna happen. I've never made excuses when we've had injuries, and I have no reason to make them this year because of the depth we have. I feel good about that that, our competition is helping them. Next year, well I never really cry about how young we are, but next year I might throw in a couple digs because this year we're very old. We got a lot of experience, and we got a lot of depth.
(On Will Smith's defense at UofL)
It was a great hand-eye coordination, and the arm always stood out. The easy action, the ball came out with a lot of zip, a lot of life. Buster Posey was a shortstop in high school, went to Florida State, actually played a year at shortstop for Florida State and they convert him to a catcher. We kind of had a blueprint in place that - USA baseball had called and people were starting to inquire about him and Buster Posey was kind of the comparison. He's very athletic, you would see him take ground balls at third or second. As a coach you'd go: 'he kind of looks better than my starting third baseman or my starting second baseman'. But, the value of the catcher is like the quarterback. We're gonna get more value out of him behind the plate. So, the defense was ahead of the offense. There was athleticism in there. To this day, he's got a growth mindset and a work ethic. The offense will catch up, the power will come, all those things will come as long as you've got the talent, the athleticism and the work ethic. Like I always say, he was still a first rounder. They might say 'well he only did this at Louisville and he only this amount of home runs only did this'. Wait a second, he was a first rounder. A kid from KCD, undrafted out of high school, came to Louisville, and three years later was a first rounder. Give him the credit, but it wasn't like the Dodgers sprinkled magic dust on his head. He had the tools, he had the athleticism. They've done a great job with him, don't get me wrong, but I got a little perturbed if you can tell. Somebody threw out an article last year, maybe from the west coast, and it just kind of glorified what he didn't do at Louisville and what he's doing with the Dodgers. We're all reading the article and we're like 'wait a second, this kid was their first pick'. He was pretty darn good when he came out of Louisville. They've done a great job, give them credit, but he was really darn good for us too.
(On why he thinks Lucas Dunn can be an everyday shortstop in the ACC)
Athleticism, the arm strength, and then really the no-entitlement (mentality). We say that often about the Will Smith's and the Nick Solak's. What's made Lucas Dunn, Lucas Dunn was just no entitlement. He just showed up, he's got a smile on his face all the time. I had a player 15 years ago that I kind of compared him to SpongeBob - nowadays unfortunately these kids know who SpongeBob is - but he's like he's just got that smile on his face. He plays hard, he smiles, and he's very genuine. When we talked about the five round (MLB Draft) and the dilemma he was in, it wasn't 'I'll comeback if I'm the shortstop', it was genuinely 'do you want me back? And if I come back, where do you think I could play?' He immediately said that 'coach I don't care, I'll play anywhere you want. I just want to know' I said honestly with (Justin) Lavey leaving the shortstop position, I mean Tim Borden II has done a nice job there, but you got to have more than one. We have a high school freshman coming in, but you just never know. I said 'you've shown you could play second, third, and every position in the outfield, the scouts are asking if you can play short, I'm gonna give you a chance to play short'. I've got scouts that come see us - I had one organization say they think he's a big league second baseman, I've had one say I think he's a big league centerfielder. The value of, as we value catching you value shortstop like that. I can't say he's a big league shortstop yet, but there's athleticism, there's tools. He just needs reps, he needs the angles, he just needs the game reps. He'll get better and better. So I think the sky's the limit for Lucas, and that's why I think he's going to be super attractive to an organization because of the versatility that be brings.
(Photo of Dan McDonnell: Steven Branscombe/USA TODAY Sports)
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