LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- Fiery Luke Smith drew national media and social media attention for the wrong reason during Louisville's College World Series loss to Vanderbilt Friday night and Monday coach Dan McDonnell came to the pitcher's defense.
After fanning Vandy's Ken Powell for his 10th strikeout to end the top of the eighth inning, Smith was clearly caught on ESPN's cameras yelling a couple profanities at Powell as he walked to the Cardinals' dugout.
Smith dominated the Commodores for eight innings, allowing only three hits, but they sent him to the showers in the top of the ninth and rallied from a 2-1 deficit to eliminate U of L 3-2.
It was an embarrassing outburst for both Smith and Louisville and was certainly not indicative of the kind of program McDonnell runs or the image he works hard to project. He is first-class all the way and demands the same of his players. In my memory, Smith is the only player during McDonnell's 13-year tenure who has produced such a regrettable moment. Unless, of course, you count Michael McAvene's totally innocuous "That's horrible" comment to a plate umpire that earned him an undeserved four-game suspension.
Asked about the incident afterwards, Smith said: "Vanderbilt is a great team, and I respect -- I love that part of baseball. When they got their big hit in the ninth, they celebrate. That's how it goes. When I strike somebody out, I celebrate, and that's just the way it is."
In multiple interviews, photographer Bill Caudill, who was in the Vandy dugout in Omaha, said Smith had been on the receiving end of insults, taunts about his appearance and sexual orientation. An umpire issued two warnings to the Commodores, but ESPN announcers didn't mention it.
McDonnell said U of L athletic director Vince Tyra and Chris Morgan, the team's Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) director, had a "really good heart-to-heart" talk with Smith that night at the hotel about his behavior and that he followed up with another session on their return home Saturday.
"He's a bright kid. He knows he made a mistakes, he knows he crossed the line," McDonnell said. "He pitches with an edge, he plays with an edge. He's used to getting picked on. He's got a different look to him, he's skinny, he's got the glasses, and he's used to hearing a lot of chatter. And he uses that to fuel himself.
"But, as we talked about, there's obviously a point where you cross the line and he knows he crossed the line. In the heat of the moment, I knew there was confrontation going on; I didn't know exactly the extent, I'm so far away from the dugout and guys are running in and out. But you watch it on TV and you hate it for the kid because there's a lot of jawing going on on the other side that nobody ever saw."
A junior college transfer, Smith just completed his first season with the Cards after posting an 18-2 record at Parkland College in his hometown of Champaign, Ill. At U of L, where he was the fourth starter behind Reid Detmers, Nick Bennett and Bobby Miller, Smith was 6-1 with a 4.24 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 68 innings. With Bennett headed to the pros, Smith will probably be a weekend starter next season.
McDonnell said Smith leads the team in community service hours, noting that the day before the Vandy game he visited Children's Hospital in Omaha, and is likely to be voted a team captain for 2020. He is also active in the FCA.
"Not that what he did was right, but he became the villain in this and he'll learn from it," McDonnell said. "He's very well-respected in our progam. But we've got to learn from out mistakes and I'm confident he will."
SEVEN CARDS MAY GO PRO
Seven Louisville players were selected in the MLB first-year player draft earlier this month, including six juniors eligible for the first time, and McDonnell plans on losing them all to the pros. That's simply business as usual for the Cards, who see key players depart in the draft every year.
However, the heavy turnover obviously hasn't slowed them down whatsoever. McDonnell just restocks, and U of L's six seasons of 50 wins or more this decade is the most among Division I teams.
"The amazing thing to me is how much talent comes in here every year and how consistent it is," junior first baseman Logan Wyatt says. "Seems like every year, this team's in the running to go to the CWS. It's pretty remarkable."
Wyatt was the Cardinal drafted the highest -- in the second round, 51st overall, by the San Francisco Giants. Other Cards drafted were pitcher Michael McAvene (3rd round, 103rd overall by the Cubs); Bennett (6th/193/Brewers); pitcher Bryan Hoeing (7th/201/Marlins); outfielder Jake Snider (20th/604/Pirates; outfielder Drew Campbell (23rd/697/Braves); and pitcher Shay Smiddy (36th/1,088/Rays. Hoeing is a senior, the rest are juniors.
"We're used to this," McDonnell said. "We've had as many as 10 in a given year. You just keep rolling over, just get the next group ready, wish those guys luck as they chase their dream of being a big leaguer. Everybody gets a year older, another great recruiting class comes in and that's what I love about coaching is you've got to re-teach everything.
"Hopefully, I mean I've never made excuses or talked about our youth. That's just part of it. This is who we are and it's the way we want it. We wouldn't want it any other way, just because of the talented kids we've got and they're all crossing the line into pro ball.
"Kids have to fly to Arizona or Florida and they have to take physicals, so there could be a hiccup along the way. So until they officially sign along the dotted line. . .but when they get drafted they've usually made it clear that they want to sign or they're ready to sign. But occasionally we'll have a guy or two who won't sign. We'll see how this next week goes."
McDONNELL COACHING TEAM USA
McDonnell didn't get much rest after returning home from Omaha and what turned out to be a 69-game season. He conducted team and individual meetings Saturday and Sunday and opened his first of three summer youth baseball camps Monday. He will leave Thursday for Cary, N.C., where he will begin his duties as coach of the USA Baseball National Team. First order of business is to pare the 32 candidates down to 24.
Included are four U of L players -- pitchers Reid Detmers, Bobby Miller and Michael Kirian, along with third baseman Alex Binelas, the only freshman invited to try out.
After the final team is selected, the U.S. will host the 8th annual USA vs. Cuba International Friendship Series in various locations across North Carolina from July 2-6.
Following that, the team will travel to Taipei, Taiwan, and Matsuyama, Japan, for games from July 9-21. It's an experience that McDonnell, who also was a Team USA coach in 2009, savors.
"Just to keep competing is fun, and it's healing when the season ends with a loss, especially putting the USA uniform on as I did in '09, that is a real treat," he said. "And you're coaching superstar players, but they're much more than just talented players. These are the All-Americans of college baseball to represent our country.
"Kids come together from all parts of the country and they're all fighting for their spot and they're competing. Then at some point everybody's got to unify and say, 'Hey, we've got to be one team,' and it's fun when they all get to be in one dugout and you start playing a country in the other dugout. The competitive spirit when you get the 24 best players in the country wearing the USA uniform and you're playing against another country, man, it's spirited. It's a lot of fun."
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org