The 2021 NC State Wolfpack Baseball team is back in action this weekend after not playing since March 7th due to a COVID-19 pause, with the Louisville Cardinals coming to Raleigh in what is a beyond crucial series for the Wolfpack.
Louisville currently sits at eighth in D1Baseball.com Top 25 Rankings, posting an 11-5 record heading into this weekend's three-game series. Without further ado, let's meet the 2021 Louisville Cardinals, the team tabbed to win the ACC in the league's Preseason Coaches Poll.
Louisville, as usual, is one of the best teams in the ACC, as well as the nation. Since the Cardinals' first baseball season in the ACC in 2015, Head Coach Dan McDonnell's squad has won four regular-season conference championships, and have appeared in four College World Series since 2013.
This year is no different, as Louisville is off to a solid start so far this year. The Cardinals sit at 4-2 in conference play, having just swept #24 Boston College and losing two-of-three against #12 Georgia Tech a few weeks back. As far as non-conference play, Louisville has series wins over Bellarmine and Western Illinois, and midweek wins over Eastern Kentucky and Murray State. The Cardinals have had a few losses during "Midweek Mayhem", dropping a game on March 2nd to Morehead State, and losing earlier this week at Eastern Kentucky. It wasn't just Louisville who had a rough week over the course of the last few days, as eight different ranked teams lost to unranked opponents during Tuesday and Wednesday's midweek stretch.
As for its roster, Louisville's hitting and pitching compliment each other, as the two units are both statistically near the top of the ACC. The Cardinals have announced that left-hander Michael Kirian will start Friday's game, and that righty Glenn Albanese will take the mound on Saturday. Kirian has been phenomenal thus far, as through 16.0 innings pitched over the course of four appearances and three starts, he's posted a 0.56 ERA and a 3-0 record on the bump. Kirian tops out around 95-96 MPH on a high-spin fastball, and uses the bottom of the strike zone for most of his work. This sophomore definitely poses a tough threat for State in Friday's opening contest.
As for Albanese, who currently sits at a 0.96 ERA through two starts against Bellarmine and Boston College. Albanese has struck out twelve batters so far this season, and is holding opponents to a .161 batting average so far. Albanese has already been receiving attention from scouts at the professional level, as he came in at eighty-seventh on the MLB.com Top 100 2021 Draft Prospect List, one of four Cardinals to be included. Albanese stands at 6'6-24o pounds and has a powerful throwing motion that oftentimes trips batters up.
As for the bullpen, Louisville has a solid set of relief pitchers as well. True freshman Kaleb Corbett leads the team with seven appearances so far, and has made the most of his time on the mound. Corbett has held opponents to a .132 batting averages over 11.1 innings pitched, and handles most of the closing duties for the Cardinals. Giving up just five hits, Corbett has yet to surrender an earned run thus far, and will more than likely make a late game appearance, possibly multiple, in a close game this weekend.
Lefties Evan Webster and Tate Kuehner have both made six appearances in 2021, with Webster throwing 11.2 innings and Kuehner tossing 11.0. Webster is a second-year freshman who has given up twelve hits during his time on the mound, sitting on a 4.63 ERA heading into the weekend. Webster is certainly better than what his stat line may show, as a rough outing against Georgia Tech has skewed his numbers. He's coming off what is by far his best appearance of the season, as he gave up just on hit over 3.2 innings pitched last weekend against Boston College.
Kuehner is also a second-year freshman who has a 1-2 record despite holding opponents to a .150 batting average. Kuehner maintains a 4.91 ERA, and has struck out fifteen batters this season. Kuehner seems to be pretty hit-or-miss, as he has been streaky at times throughout the year.
Fifth-year senior Adam Elliott leads Louisville with 17.0 innings pitched doing so over five appearances. Elliott is another pitcher whose stats are pretty skewed, as he currently leads the Cardinals with twenty-one strikeouts despite a 3.71 ERA. All seven of his earned runs were given up in Louisville's 19-6 game two loss against Georgia Tech, who has the ACC's best offense by a long shot. Elliott will definitely get some action this weekend, as he's the Cardinals main guy out of the bullpen.
Seamus Barrett, Jack Perkins, and Carter Lohman will all be key pieces in Louisville's bullpen as well, and don't be surprised if Luke Seed gets put on the mound as well. Seed has been big for the Cardinals early this year, despite handing most of his duties during midweek outings.
As for Louisville's Sunday starting spot, signs point to Luke Smith getting the final spot in the rotation. Smith has started in all four weekend series so far, and has a 2-1 record with a 5.02 ERA. Smith has allowed opponents to compile a .316 batting average, which will be State's best chance to put its bats to work this weekend. Smith is best known for being the guy in goggles who yelled "F*** YOU" at a Vanderbilt batter while pitching during the 2019 College World Series, a video that went viral across the YouTube and Twitter worlds.
Offensively, Louisville is known specifically for one major asset, sealing bases. The Cardinals lead the nation in stolen bases with fifty through their sixteen games. For reference, Louisville leads the ACC with fifty, while Boston College is in second in the conference with nineteen, quite a wide margin. The Cardinals' team-leader in stolen bases is outfielder Levi Usher with fifteen. Usher sits at seventy-eighth on the 2021 MLB.com Prospect List, but has not been overly-productive aside from stealing bases so far. Usher currently posts a .204 average, with eleven hits and eighteen strikeouts. The Kirkwood Community College transfer may not get on base much, but her certainly makes the most of it.
Alex Binelas was a unanimous Freshman All-American in 2019 at third base, and came into the 2021 season ranked ninth in the MLB.com Prospect List. However, Binelas suffered a hand injury in the Cardinals' second game of the shortened 2020 season, and did not play again for Louisville last year. In what could possibly be attributed to either the injury or the missed time because of it, Binelas has been off to an underperforming start. Starting all sixteen games, Binelas is hitting just .145, tied with Usher for the team's most strikeouts in the batter's box with eighteen. Binelas has had just one multi-hit game this season, but obviously possesses lots of untapped potential with the bat in his hand.
Catcher Henry Davis has lived up to his preseason hype, Louisville's fourth member of the MLB.com's Prospect List. Davis is currently hitting .411 with a .514 on-base percentage. Davis has totaled four home runs and is the team leader in hits with twenty-three, as well as RBI with sixteen. The third-year sophomore also shows some speed that is uncharacteristic for his position, going a perfect eight-for-eight on stolen base attempts. Additionally, he's one of the best defensive catchers in the league, being known for his strong arm used to throw baserunners out and having yet to make an error and allowing just two passed balls in his twelve appearances behind the plate.
Iowa Western Community College transfer Cooper Bowman has turned heads early in his first year with Louisville, hitting .370 and totaling seventeen hits. Bowman leads the Cardinals with a .696 slugging percentage, with seven extra-base hits in the fourteen games which he's played in.
Cameron Masterman is another powerful piece of Louisville's lineup, posting a .333 batting average with seventeen hits and a team-leading five home runs. While he's certainly a threat, he has struggled a bit so far with strikeouts, fanning twelve times this year. Masterman does seem to have a keen eye for the strike zone though, as he's tied with Davis as the team's leader with eleven walks drawn.
Two bench players have quickly emerged for Louisville, with Christian Knapczyk and Trey Leonard both providing nice surprises. Knapczyk has a .448 batting average in ten games played and nine starts, while Leonard has played in eleven games, seven of which he started, and has gathered a .407 batting average. It will be interesting to see who McDonnell goes with in the lineup this weekend, as early-season starters Tim Borden II and Dalton Rushing have both hit below .200 so far.
State and Louisville have met sixteen total times on the baseball diamond, with the Cardinals holding a 12-4 all-time lead. Most recently, Louisville came to Raleigh and swept the Wolfpack in April of 2019.
My personal favorite matchup between State and Louisville was in 2017, when the Wolfpack edged the 19-1 top-ranked Cardinals 3-1 in Friday's series-opening contest. Check out this hyperlink for highlights from that game, and once again, a gorgeous NC State uniform that is sadly no longer worn.
(I know the video says 2016, I have no idea why, it was in 2017)
This weekend's series will take place on State's campus at Doak Field at Dail Park, with the first game at 6:30PM on Friday, the second game at 2PM on Saturday, and the final game at 11AM on Sunday (I have no idea why we're playing at 11AM).
All three games will be on the ACC Network Extra broadcast through the WatchESPN app, and a free radio stream will be provided through 88.1 WKNC and the TuneIn Radio App.
State has announced that left-hander Evan Justice (1-1, 6.94 ERA) will start on Friday, and that righty Sam Highfill (0-0, 5.17 ERA) will be on the mound Saturday. As for Sunday, no starting pitcher has been announced, but I hope that Reid Johnston (1-0, 3.27 ERA) finally gets back into a starting spot, which would be his first of the 2021 season. If not Johnston, I wouldn't be surprised to see Matt Willadsen (1-0, 4.72 ERA) on the mound for the Wolfpack.
If you couldn't tell, Louisville is really, really good. There's a reason the Cardinals were picked to win the ACC. With that in mind, as well as State coming off a COVID pause, I think the Wolfpack are a bit behind the eight-ball this weekend.
State, who currently sits at 4-6 overall and 1-5 in ACC play, desperately need a series win here to regain some confidence and prevent this season from becoming a lost cause, but I just don't see it happening.
I'll take Louisville to sweep this weekend's three-game series against the Pack, dropping State even further into a hole record-wise.
Hopefully I'm wrong, but things just aren't looking up right now.
As always, thanks for reading, and Go Pack!