The way Louisville baseball player Adam Elliott saw it, last year’s annual Pizza Bowl intra-squad scrimmage would be the final fall series of his college career.
That idea made sense at the time. The left-handed relief pitcher was a senior in his last year of eligibility and well on his way to finishing a sport administration degree. The Pizza Bowl, devised by coach Dan McDonnell as the grand finale of the baseball team’s fall practice sessions, was a precursor to a spring season in which Louisville earned the No. 1 preseason ranking for the first time in program history and was anointed the Atlantic Coast Conference favorite.
The pandemic changed everything Elliott thought he knew. He was back in the Cardinals’ fold Thursday for the 15th edition of the Pizza Bowl at Jim Patterson Stadium.
“I thought I would kind of move on from Louisville and hopefully play in the minor leagues somewhere after last year but obviously the situation changed a little bit. I just felt like it was my best opportunity to put myself in a better position and come back to Louisville and play one more year. It worked out that way and I’m happy it did,” said Elliott, whose 1.88 career ERA ranks third best in Louisville history.
Elliott was one of multiple Cardinals players who expected to begin their pro careers after last season until the seismic shift imposed by COVID-19 altered their plans. Luke Smith, Lucas Dunn, Michael Kirian, Luke Brown and Glenn Albanese are others who have returned to the college ranks, making the Cardinals’ roster even more robust and experienced heading into 2021.
The pandemic shuttered the Cardinals’ season last March, just 17 games into the slate, and ensured drastic changes in sports and beyond. Major League Baseball’s draft was reduced from 40 rounds to five in June as a cost-cutting endeavor. MLB also allowed its teams to sign an unlimited amount of undrafted players for up to $20,000 each.
Louisville was well-represented in the first round with two selections: left-handed pitcher Reid Detmers was taken 10th overall by the Angels and right-handed pitcher Bobby Miller was selected 29th by the Dodgers. Utility player Zach Britton was chosen in the fifth round by the Blue Jays. Seniors Justin Lavey (Mariners) and Danny Oriente (Diamondbacks) signed free-agent contracts.
Elliott, a St. Xavier grad, talked to multiple teams — mainly the Red Sox, Diamondbacks, Royals and Mets — and was intrigued by possibilities but recognized a better path for his immediate future. The NCAA granted spring sports athletes an additional year of eligibility and he took it, banking on the idea that he’ll improve more in his fifth season and help Louisville win a College World Series next June.
Smith felt the same way. The senior talked to more than 10 teams in free agency and thought he had a great situation regardless of his decision. After consulting with his family and coaches, Smith ultimately turned down those overtures to tap into his potential at Louisville. He moved into the team’s weekend rotation and pitched Sundays last year but wants to compete for the Friday spot.
The uncertainty of the 2020 minor league season was another consideration.
“We were pretty confident that there wasn’t going to be a minor league baseball season this year and we were correct. So if you think about it, when the draft comes around next year, I’ll really only be 2½ to 3 months behind where I would be if I took the draft this year,” Smith said.
Continuing education was another bonus, as both Elliott and Smith are pursuing master’s degrees in human resources. Smith spent two years at Parkland College before transferring to Louisville. This is his third year with the Cardinals.
“(Education) was another reason for coming back,” Smith said. “Obviously, Coach (McDonnell) talks about having that degree in your back pocket and it never hurts to have a master’s degree. I know baseball isn’t going to last forever so just being prepared for what comes after baseball — this is really giving me a good opportunity to do that.”
Dunn, a junior, was poised for a breakout season in 2020 after playing with the USA Collegiate National Team managed by McDonnell the prior summer. But he broke a bone in his left hand, had surgery, and was only about 80% healthy when the Cardinals’ season began. He played just eight games last spring.
Dunn was stunned to hear the news of the season’s cancellation prior to the Cardinals’ three-game home stand against Notre Dame. In fact, he thought it was a joke.
“I think (catcher) Henry (Davis) came into the locker room and he said, ‘I think they just canceled the season.’ I was like, ‘No, they didn’t.’ It took a while to hit me but then it was obviously devastating. I thought we were going to have a great year. We were geared to I thought to make another trip to Omaha and take a run at a national championship. But that’s kind of the cards you get dealt.”
Dunn said six or seven teams reached out in free agency but he liked the idea of returning to school to sharpen his skills and compete alongside his teammates. He used the offseason as an opportunity to rest his hand before delving into an MVP performance in the Florida Collegiate Summer League.
He started at shortstop Thursday for the Vrable Braves in a 5-4 Pizza Bowl opener win over Snider’s Dodgers. The Cardinals were split into two teams named after assistant coaches Adam Vrable and Eric Snider.
Dunn said he’s happy to be back with the Cardinals and harbors “absolutely no regrets” about his decision. Truth be told, the unexpected events of last spring helped him mature as a player and a person, he said.
“That kind of made you appreciate everything in life a little bit better,” Dunn said. “I’m definitely thankful.”
Reach Shannon Russell at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @slrussell. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/subscribe.