LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Jeff Gardner hammered a pair of home runs and had four RBI while Adam Engel and Nick Ratajczak combined for four hits and five RBI as the No. 10 Louisville baseball team clinched a share of its fourth BIG EAST Conference regular season title in five years with a 12-4 victory over 16th-ranked Pittsburgh on Friday night Jim Patterson Stadium.
With their 15th straight win overall, the Cardinals improved to 45-10 on the season and 19-4 in BIG EAST games, while the Panthers dropped to 40-14 and 18-5. Louisville, which also locked up the No. 1 seed in next week’s BIG EAST Championship in Clearwater, Fla., can win the league title outright with a victory in Saturday’s regular season finale with Pittsburgh, scheduled for a noon ET start on ESPNU.
The winning streak for Louisville, which is the second longest in school history trailing only a 20-game stretch in the 1950’s, stands as the longest active streak in the nation. A victory in Saturday’s finale would also match the school record for regular season held by the 2010 Cardinals, which finished with a 46-10 mark.
Gardner (Louisville, Ky./Whitefield Academy) finished 2-for-4 at the plate connecting for his eighth and ninth home runs of the season to become the second Louisville player this week to hit two home runs in a game after junior outfielder Coco Johnson (Benton Harbor, Mich./Central Arizona) did it in the win at Ohio State on Tuesday. It was the first career multiple-home run game for the junior designated hitter, who is hitting .388 with eight home runs and 24 RBI in his last 20 games.
Engel (Cincinnati, Ohio/Loveland HS) went 2-for-3 with a double, two RBI and two runs scored, while Ratajczak (Joliet, Ill./Gulf Coast CC) was 2-for-4 with three RBI as Louisville finished with a 12-5 advantage in hits. Junior catcher Kyle Gibson (Henderson, Ky./Henderson County HS) added two hits and scored once while senior first baseman Zak Wasserman (Stevensville, Mich./Lakeshore HS) and junior outfielder Cole Sturgeon (Owensboro, Ky./Owensboro Catholic HS) chipped in with one hit and two runs scored each.
On the mound, junior righthander Jeff Thompson (Greenville, Ind./Floyd Central HS) won his fourth straight start and improved to 10-1 on the season after allowing three runs on just three hits with seven strikeouts in seven innings pitched. He became just the sixth pitcher in school history to win 10 or more games in a season and moved within a one win of matching Justin Marks’ school record of 11 wins set in 2009. It was also career win No. 21 for Thompson moving him into a tie for fifth on the Cardinals’ career leaderboard with Mike Shields (1975-78).
For the second straight night, Pittsburgh struck first plating a run in the opening inning on Friday when leadoff hitter Stephen Vranka sent a 0-1 pitch from Thompson over the left field wall for a 1-0 advantage. It was the seventh home run of the season for Vranka.
Following a scoreless second inning, Louisville gained command for good with a six-run third inning against righty starter Matt Wotherspoon. The scoring started with a RBI groundout by Ratajczak to plate Gibson. After junior third baseman Ty Young (Coatesville, Pa./Malvern Prep) was intentionally walked to load the bases, Johnson followed by smacking the first pitch he saw from Wotherspoon back up the middle for a two-run single to score Wasserman and Engel. Moments later Gardner sent a 1-2 pitch over the right field wall for the 6-1 cushion.
An inning later, the Cardinals pushed two more across on a RBI double by Engel to score sophomore shortstop Sutton Whiting (New Wilmington, Pa./Louisville Ballard HS) and a RBI sacrifice fly by Ratajczak to plate Engel. After the Panthers cut into the margin in the top of the fifth with a bases loaded RBI walk by second baseman Dylan Wolsonovich and a RBI fielder’s choice off the bat of Vranka, Louisville answered with two more of its own in the bottom of the fifth. The scoring started with the second home run of the night by Gardner, a mammoth bomb to right center, and a RBI single to left center by Wasserman for the 10-3 lead.
After a scoreless sixth inning, the Cardinals increased the margin to nine runs on a bases loaded RBI walk for Engel and a RBI single through the right side by Ratajczak. The Panthers cut the deficit to 12-4 in the eighth with a no outs, bases loaded walk, but that rally was halted by freshman righty Kyle Funkhouser (Oak Forest, Ill./Oak Forest HS), who got a strikeout, a flyout and a strikeout after entering from the bullpen. Funkhouser finished with three total strikeouts in two perfect innings of relief to close the win.
For Pittsburgh, Wotherspoon lost just his second game of the season and dropped to 9-2 overall after allowing 10 runs, all earned, on eight hits and three walks in 4.2 innings.
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Postgame Louisville Notes
- With Friday’s win, Louisville improved to 30-5 at home this season setting a new single season record for wins at Jim Patterson Stadium. Overall, the Cardinals are 210-75 (.736 winning percentage) all-time at Jim Patterson Stadium since it opened in 2005.
- The 30 wins surpassed the previous season-high of 29 wins set during the 2009 and 2010 seasons.
- With their sixth win in the last seven meetings with Pittsburgh, the Cardinals own a 13-8 advantage in the all-time series, which dates back to 1978.
- During the 15-game winning streak, the Cardinals have an ERA of just 1.87 (28 earned runs in 15 games) with 160 strikeouts and just 42 walks in 135.0 innings pitched. Behind that great pitching has been some stellar defense as Louisville has committed only eight errors for a .986 fielding percentage.
- Louisville improved to 31-4 this season against righty starters.
- With their six runs in the third inning on Friday, the Cardinals scored five or more runs in an inning for the 13th time this season.
- Entering the weekend ranked third in the nation in stolen bases, the Cardinals added four more on Friday taking their total for the season to 140 (in 180 attempts). The school record for steals is 153 set in 71 games during the 2007 College World Series season.
- After opening the weekend ranked No. 1 in the nation in strikeouts per nine innings at 9.7, the Cardinals finished with 10 on Friday against the Panthers.
- With his seven strikeouts on Friday, Jeff Thompson has 97 strikeouts this season, which ranks as the fifth highest single season total in school history. He also increased his career strikeout total to 213, which ranks eighth all-time at Louisville.
- Along with his impressive 10-1 record and 97 strikeouts in 90.1 innings pitched, Thompson has a 2.09 ERA while opposing batters are hitting just .174 against him.
- Friday’s win clinched the Cardinals’ 11th series victory of the season. A win on Sunday would closeout Louisville’s 12th series sweep of 2013.
- The announced attendance on Friday night was 3,574, the third largest home crowd of the season for the Cardinals.
- Prior to Friday’s game, the Louisville baseball program honored senior players Zak Wasserman, Nick Ratajczak and Matt Helms and senior managers Jon Glass and Brendan Holba.