By JOSH ABNER
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Cardinals coach Dan McDonnell says the NCAA regional in Louisville has "star power."
The programs routinely send players to the big leagues, are traditional college powerhouses that have won national titles and have been to the College World Series. There's even an underdog looking to spoil the show.
The common thread among the four teams in the double-elimination tournament that starts Friday: dominant pitching.
Top-seeded Louisville (46-12) boasts ace Jeff Thompson — one of 30 semifinalists for the Golden Spikes Award given to college baseball's top player — and a team earned run average of 2.52. Miami (36-23) has two lefty starters, Chris Diaz and Bryan Radziewski, who give up fewer than two runs a game.
Jason Hursh is considered a top prospect for Major League Baseball's June draft for third-seeded Oklahoma State (39-17). Bowling Green (24-29) used two straight shutouts to make the 64-team field as the No. 6 seed out of the MAC, their NCAA first appearance in 14 years.
Oklahoma State plays Miami on Friday and then the Cardinals host Bowling Green. The winner advances to the Super Regional in Nashville the following week with a berth on the line for a trip to the College World Series in Omaha.
Louisville outfielder Cole Sturgeon said with so many strong arms in the group, advancing could come from mustering a single run.
"That's what it's about in postseason baseball: fighting for one" run, Sturgeon said. "Fighting for one every inning and just trying to win every inning."
Sturgeon knows how hard that fight could be simply from batting practice this season. In addition to Thompson, pitcher of the year in the Big East, the Cardinals also have Chad Green and Dace Kime in the rotation. Thompson (10-1, 97 strikeouts in 90.2 innings) and Green (9-2) have matching 2.09 ERAs and Kime is eighth nationally with more than 11 strikeouts per nine innings.
"They just pound the zone," Sturgeon said of the staff's emphasis on throwing strikes. "Sometimes you face guys who you see have 30, 40 walks. These guys aren't going to walk you. They're coming right at you. If you get behind, it's a struggle. They all have good secondary pitches. If you don't get it done early, you're probably not going to get it done against these guys."
The Cardinals traveled to Arizona last year for the regional, losing to the eventual champion Wildcats. Miami and Oklahoma State enter this year with five combined College World Series titles.
The Hurricanes are making their record 41st straight NCAA appearance but could be without coach Jim Morris. He was hospitalized at Duke University with pneumonia during the ACC tournament and has not been released. Acting coach Gino DiMare said the earliest Morris might arrive would be Friday evening.
"I can tell you he's trying to get out of there but he's got to be cleared by the doctors," DiMare said. "That's the concern with pneumonia, getting on a plane."
The Hurricanes will try to solve Hursh (6-4, 2.65 ERA). Oklahoma State's hard-throwing righty had three complete games this year, striking out 84 and only walking 26 in 102 innings.
"This guy's a special guy," DiMare said. "We're very aware of that so we're going to have to be prepared."
Miami counters with its own starter who can deep into games in Diaz (6-5, 1.75 ERA). The sophomore lefty leads the team in starts (15) and innings pitched (102.2) and is strong enough to allow the Hurricanes to save All-ACC first team selection and ace Bryan Radziewski (9-2, 1.49 ERA) for later in the tournament. Radziewski pitched eight shutout innings in his last start against Clemson and has 101 strikeouts in 84.2 innings.
Bowling Green enters the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999 thanks to a complete game shutout in just the second start this season from Nick Bruns (6-2, 2.32 ERA). Bruns, named MAC tournament MVP, had six saves and 26 relief appearances. Mike Frank (5-7, 3.61) starts Friday against Louisville's Chad Green.
McDonnell said the Cardinals wouldn't take their opponent lightly.
"You're seeing everybody's best," he said. "Bowling Green, there's no reason they're going to hold anybody back."