Around the Bases: Opening Weekend

The next chapter of Louisville baseball begins, with the 2022 season starting this weekend in Tampa, Fla.

Louisville opens the season with a neutral site series, playing against three teams that made the NCAA Tournament last season (Charlotte, South Florida, and UConn).

Last Season…

For just the second time in Dan McDonnell’s 15-year run as head coach, Louisville missed the NCAA Tournament in 2021. Despite earning a #1 ranking in early March, Louisville was swept in three of the final four weekend series, finishing with a 28-22 record.

Louisville had seven players selected in the 2021 MLB Draft, including number one overall pick Henry Davis (Pittsburgh Pirates), third-round pick Alex Binelas (Milwaukee Brewers, now with Boston Red Sox) and fourth round pick Cooper Bowman (New York Yankees). Starters Michael Kirian, Glenn Albanese, Lucas Dunn, and Luke Brown were also selected in the MLB Draft and have pursued professional careers.

Additionally, Louisville has to replace key contributors on the mound with Luke Smith and Adam Elliott departing, along with Jack Perkins, Trey Leonard, and Tim Borden transferring.

This Season…

Thus there are a lot of unknowns for Louisville entering this season. They were picked to finish fourth in the Atlantic Division this season (with two first-place votes), and enter the 2022 season unranked in every major poll.

Louisville does have some promising young talent that will be elevated to bigger roles in 2022. Christian Knapczyk (.297 batting, nine doubles, 19 RBIs) is the top returning hitter and should man the shortstop position once again. He led the team with 11 fielding errors, but made some really solid plays at arguably the toughest defensive position. Another season of development should see him become a top two-way player for the team.

Levi Usher also returns as the top outfielder, and will likely remain in centerfield this season. He is a tremendous baserunner and defensive presence, but will need to improve at the plate after hitting just .216 last season.

Louisville does lose a lot of power from last season with Davis and Binelas departing, but elevating Dalton Rushing, Cam Masterman, and Ben Metzinger to full-time starting roles could fill that void. Rushing will likely replace Henry Davis at catcher. He is solid receiving and has a solid arm. He is coming off a great run in the Cape Cod Summer League, where he averaged .329 at the plate and had a .984 OPS. He’s got great power as both a thrower and hitter, and is currently ranked 73rd on’s 2022 Draft prospects list.

Metzinger will likely take over at third base. He made some very smooth defensive plays in 2020 at the position, and averaged .349 at the plate that season. He missed a good portion of the 2021 season, but is coming off an All-ACC Tournament run. He’s a good candidate to be this team’s breakout star if he can return to 2020 form.

Masterman likely takes one of the corner spots in the outfield. It’s also possible that he reprises his role as a designated hitter from last season. The Prospect, Ky. native started the season hot with three home runs in the opening series against Bellarmine, but struggled in the final month of the regular season with just one hit in that span.

The Rest of the Roster

After that, it is mostly newcomers in the position group for Louisville. Louisville did sign the third-ranked recruiting class in 2022 (per Perfect Game), and their 2021 class was sixth per Perfect Game.

First base will likely be an ongoing battle early in the season. Ben Bianco is a veteran and team captain that’s played in 45 career games and averaging .267 at the plate. He’ll likely spend most of his time there this season. Dalton Rushing can also play at first if the team wants to give Jack Payton (.273 batting) some starts at catcher. Will Cook (#11 Ohio prospect per Perfect Game) is a freshman that could be in the mix for first base or as a designated hitter.

Second base will likely be the biggest question mark of the defensive lineup. This will likely be the second year in a row that Louisville has a true freshman emerge in the defensive infield, as I think Noah Smith could be the guy by season’s end. Smith was the 129th-overall prospect on Perfect Game (third-overall in Illinois), and he is fantastic on defense. If he can be consistent at the plate, the sky is the limit for him as a prospect. Christian Knapczyk was able to take over at shortstop for mostly similar reasons last year, so it’s not unreasonable to think Smith couldn’t accomplish the same thing in year one. Jared Poland could also make starts at second in a pinch, but will likely move towards a pitcher role full time. Logan Beard didn’t play last season, but should push for reps at the position.

With Masterman and Usher projected for two of the three outfield spots, right field is likely a platooning position until one guy can solidify themselves midseason. Chris Seng (.167 batting) would add some speed and baserunning to the lineup. Isaac Humphrey, JT Benson, and Tyeler Hawkins will also compete for a starting job in the outfield. If two of the three can emerge, that would also move Masterman to a DH role and give the team a more well rounded day-to-day lineup.

Designated hitter is another position that will likely be platooned throughout the season. Will Cook could push for a spot as he showed some promise at the plate in the fall. Drake Westcott is another player that didn’t see time in 2021, but could also push for playing time at first base.

My Projected Starters (backups in parentheses)

Catcher: Dalton Rushing (Jack Payton)

First Base: Ben Bianco (Dalton Rushing OR Will Cook OR Drake Westcott)

Second Base: Noah Smith (Logan Beard)

Shortstop: Christian Knapczyk (Kurtis Reid OR Ben Metzinger)

Third Base: Ben Metzinger (Will Cook)

Left Field: Cam Masterman (Chris Seng OR JT Benson)

Center Field: Levi Usher (Tyeler Hawkins)

Right Field: Chris Seng (Isaac Humphrey)

Designated Hitter: Will Cook (Drake Westcott OR Cam Masterman)

New Faces on the Mound…

Louisville’s pitching has long been the strength of the team, but last year was a setback by their standards. The Cardinals finished ninth in the ACC in ERA (5.00) and seventh in opponents’ batting average (.254). With the Cardinals losing their top starter (Michael Kirian) and reliever from last year (Adam Elliott), Louisville is hoping to rebound.

Luke Seed figures to be the favorite for the Friday spot. He was Louisville’s most consistent starter, holding a team-best 2.64 ERA with a .233 opponent batting average. Seed has solid stuff, but only managed to get past the fifth inning once. If Seed can improve on his control and retiring batters without stressing the pitch count, Louisville should have yet another outstanding lefty in its pitching ranks.

After Seed, projecting the weekend starters gets really murky. Jared Poland (3.94 ERA, 14 Ks, .200 opp BA) started his last two games of the season, but has primarily been used as a reliever up to this point and hasn’t pitched past five innings himself. Poland has played games at second base early in his career, but with Louisville having stronger depth at the position, Poland can now focus on pitching. He’s got a nice fastball with life at 93-94 MPH and a solid changeup, and of Louisville’s righties, he’s probably the favorite for a weekend spot.

For the Sunday spot, I have it between three guys; Carter Lohman, Tate Kuehner, and true freshman Will Koger. Lohman (2-2, 5.31 ERA, 1.82 WHIP, 26 Ks) started three games last year, and had some of the best outings in the last month of the season against Vanderbilt, Miami, and Clemson. Kuehner (4-5, 3.55 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, .155 opp BA) also looked strong for most of the second half of the season, after a shaky first half. For now, I’m inclined to project Lohman as the starter, with Kuehner becoming Louisville’s top reliever.

Will Koger, though, is the one to watch throughout the season. Koger comes to Louisville as the third-ranked recruit in Kentucky, and 110th overall in the 2021 class via Perfect Game. He’s already got his fastball up to 93 MPH without a bolstered strength program that college and pro clubs can provide. It has the potential to come up to 96-97 by the time he becomes an upperclassman. His upside should lead him to eventually becoming a weekend starter in 2023 or 2024, but it’s tough to project a true freshman coming in and immediately becoming a weekend starter. I can see Poland starting as the top righty, with Koger eventually taking over if he can prove to be a game changer in year one.

The closer role will likely go to a lefty once again, either Michael Prosecky or Kaleb Corbett. Prosecky (5.74 career ERA, .288 opp BA in nine appearances) has struggled at times in his Louisville career, but did go 3-0 in the Cape Cod League this past summer with a 1.61 ERA. Corbett (3.58 ERA, 17 appearances) was really strong as a closer in the first half of the season, and could be an all-conference contender. At minimum, Corbett should be another top lefty in the bullpen, with the potential to be a starter.

Louisville has more experienced lefties such as Evan Webster (5.50 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 20 appearances), Garrett Schmeltz (5.89 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 14 appearances), and Riley Phillips (15.43 ERA, six appearances) returning. The Cardinals will need more righties to step up and complement the lineup, but Moose Barrett (1-0, 8.18 ERA, ten appearances) and Cam Robinson (9.00 ERA, nine appearances) give Louisville some solid size and upside to work with. EKU transfer Jacob Ferris (2-1, 3.04 ERA in 2020) is another veteran that gives the Cardinals a quality right-hander in the bullpen, also a possible midweek starter option.

Projected starters: Luke Seed (Fri.), Jared Poland (Sat.), Carter Lohman (Sun.), Will Koger (midweek)

Key Bullpen Options: Tate Kuehner, Michael Prosecky (closer), Kaleb Corbett, Evan Webster, Riley Phillips, Jacob Ferris, Moose Barrett, Cam Robinson

Charlotte 49ers at a Glance

The 49ers earned an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament last season, finishing with a 40-21 record and winning the Conference USA regular season title. While no preseason accolades have been announced for Conference USA, UNC-Charlotte has accepted an invitation to join the American Athletic Conference (date pending).

Austin Knight (.342 batting, 1.013 OPS, 29 doubles, 11 home runs, 63 RBIs) is coming off a sensational 2021 campaign where he earned All-American honors, and was named Conference USA Player of the Year. Knight also tied for the team lead with 13 stolen bases in 2021. He’s an excellent hitter with some serious power and defensive chops. If he can cut down on 49 strikeouts from last season, he has a chance to go very high in the 2022 MLB Draft.

Will Butcher is another +.300 hitter and all-conference player returning from last year. He and Knight alone should make the 49ers a contender for the C-USA title this spring. David McCabe (.338) had 14 home runs, nine doubles and 35 RBIs in 37 games played last season, while Jack Dragum (.288 batting) had eight doubles and seven home runs; both also return and should give the 49ers a solid infield.

The 49ers will have to replace first team All-Conference USA starter Bryce McGowan, but do get a boost with all-conference reliever Christian Lothes (4-0, 3.10 ERA, 21 appearances, eight saves) returning. Matt Brooks (3-2, 5.93 ERA, 11 starts in 15 appearances) is a returning starter, but the 49ers will have to replace two weekend starters from last season. Jackson Boss (3-2, 4.83 ERA, 29 appearances) is another name to watch.

One name to keep an eye on is Colby Bruce, who returns after sitting out last season with an injury. Bruce earned All-Conference USA honors in 2019 as a closer with eight saves and a 2.63 ERA. He’s 10-5 in his college career with a 3.70 ERA and ten saves; if Bruce can return to his 2019 form, that will bolster the bullpen in a big way.

South Florida Bulls at a Glance

South Florida is coming off the best season in program history, reaching the Super Regionals for the first time in 2021. The Bulls finished 31-30 and won the American Athletic Conference tournament to earn an NCAA Tournament berth, then won the Gainesville regional by beating Florida, Miami (FL), and South Alabama to advance to the Super Regionals.

USF was picked to finish sixth in the American this season, with three players selected to the preseason all-conference team.

The Bulls return three of its top four hitters from 2021, including third baseman Carmine Lane and outfielder Drew Brutcher. Lane (.306) was the only qualifying hitter to average over .300 at the plate, led the team with 43 RBIs to go with 14 doubles and 11 home runs, and was an All-AAC Second Team performer in 2021. Brutcher averaged .294 with six doubles and eight home runs last season, earning Freshman All-American honors with Perfect Game. Utility player Roberto Peña adds some power to the lineup with 12 doubles and home runs apiece last season, but will have to improve his .236 batting average and team-high 75 strikeouts.

Jack Jasiak (6-7, 2.93 ERA in 2021) earned preseason All-AAC honors and will likely be the No. 1 option for the Bulls. Brad Lord (3-5, 4.76 ERA) also returns as a starter from last season. Joseph Sanchez (4.76 ERA, 19 appearances) and Orion Kerkering (5-3, 2.88 ERA, 25 appearances) are returning contributors from last season’s bullpen.

UConn Huskies at a Glance

The Huskies enter 2022 as the reigning Big East champions, finishing 2021 with a 34-19 record and a trip to the NCAA Tournament. UConn was selected as the preseason favorite to win the conference, earning seven of eight first-place votes. UConn has recently been a regular in the NCAA Tournament, making seven appearances in the last 11 seasons.

UConn led the Big East in almost every major category last season, but will have to replace a ton of key contributors on the mound from last year’s group that led the conference in ERA. The Huskies do, however, have several top performers that can lead the Huskies back to another conference title.

Starting pitcher Austin Peterson (7-1, 2.58 ERA, 82 K, .201 opp BA) was a second-team All-Big East performer in 2021, and was named to both the preseason all-conference team and Collegiate Baseball Newspaper All-America Second Team.

Aside from Peterson, UConn returns another starting pitcher in Pat Gallagher (5-2, 4.44 ERA, 61 K); Gallagher served as the No. 3 starter for UConn, and will likely retain that role if not move up to No. 2 for the Huskies. Vanderbilt transfer Justin Willis (4-0, 2.60 ERA, 16 appearances) returns as likely the top bullpen option. Harvard transfer Enzo Stefanoni (5-1, 2.82 ERA, 19 appearances in 2019) adds a veteran to the lineup and could be the No. 3 starter, if not a major figure in the bullpen.

Outfielder Erik Stock should be one of the top players in the Big East this season, after earning all-conference first team honors last season. Stock is a career .381 hitter with 17 doubles, six home runs, and 38 RBIs to go with a .560 slugging percentage. Christian Fedko (.295 batting, team-high 15 doubles in 2021) also returns as a team captain and potential all-conference player.

How to Watch / Listen:

Only the USF game will sit on ESPN+ (subscription required), but all three games will also on 93.9 The Ville. Friday’s season opener against Charlotte starts at 2 p.m. ET, with Saturday’s contest against South Florida starting at 4 p.m. The Sunday finale against UConn starts at 9 a.m. ET.

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