Commentary

No test too tough for Wunderlich

Louisville third baseman has been nearly impossible to take off the field

Updated: April 7, 2010, 12:23 PM ET
By Brian Bennett | ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Call it the college baseball version of the Wunderlich test.

[+] EnlargePhil Wunderlich
Louisville Sports InformationLouisville's Phil Wunderlich is a big reason the Cardinals are ranked ninth.

Question 1: Can you bide your time for two years while an All-American plays your natural position?

Question 2: Can you play an entire season with a torn labrum in your shoulder and still put up great stats?

Bonus question: How about missing just one game with a broken face?

For Louisville's Phil Wunderlich, the correct answer to all of those questions is yes. The junior third baseman has been nearly impossible to take off the field and almost as difficult to get out. He's a big reason the Cardinals are 24-4 and ranked No. 9 in the country by Baseball America.

"He's as tough as anyone I've ever played with," said Louisville senior pitcher Matt Lea.

Wunderlich is batting .342 with a .700 slugging percentage and leads Louisville with 10 home runs and 32 RBIs. He was a second-team All-American last year after slamming 18 home runs with 78 RBIs for a team that advanced to the super regionals. But numbers barely tell the story of his sophomore campaign.

In the second week of the season, Wunderlich tore the labrum in his right shoulder while sliding into second base.

"I went home that night and I couldn't move my arm," he said.

Wunderlich sat out the next day, but some training room magic helped him play every other game that season. Before leaving for the Team USA trials in the summer, doctors forced him to have an MRI. The results weren't conclusive, and Wunderlich convinced them to let him go to the trials.

But he thinks all the poking and prodding and dye injections worsened the arm; after the first day of trials, Wunderlich's shoulder was killing him. He came back to Louisville for surgery, and it was discovered that he had torn both the labrum and his rotator cuff.

"I kind of felt like an idiot, because I played this guy through the super regionals," Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. "I knew it was bothering him, but I didn't know it was that bad. That just shows you how tough he is, not only to play every day but to put up the numbers he did."

Want to talk tough? On April 7, 2009, against Indiana, the left-handed hitter got smacked in the face by a pitch. The ball broke his orbital bone and fractured his nose in about a dozen places.

"My nose was like way over here," says Wunderlich, pointing well underneath his left eye. "When I came back to the dugout, just by the looks on my teammates' faces, I could tell it was pretty bad. They're the kind of guys who love to laugh and joke, but looking at me was not very fun for them."

His face was so swollen, doctors couldn't perform surgery right away. While he waited, Wunderlich decided to try batting practice two days later before the Pittsburgh game. Surprised at how well he could see out of his right eye, he went ahead and played with a protective cage on his helmet. He hit a game-winning, three-run home run in the seventh inning.

Wunderlich played four games more before the surgery, delaying the operation so he wouldn't miss a rivalry date against Kentucky. Then he got the bones reset and hopped on the team plane to Rutgers.

"He had to wear that Hannibal Lecter mask for a couple of weeks," Lea said. "But he still doesn't move in that batter's box. If the ball is anywhere near him, he's wearing it to get on first."

Wunderlich worked too hard to get on the field to let a few injuries derail him. The lightly recruited Chicago native didn't know any position except third base when he came to college. But Louisville had All-American Chris Dominguez anchored at the hot corner, and Dominguez stuck around for the 2009 season to try to improve his draft stock.

"Chris is 6-foot-5, throws 95 miles an hour across the infield and hits 500-foot home runs," Wunderlich said. "It's pretty hard to beat that."

After searching for at-bats as a designated hitter and reserve his freshman year, Wunderlich volunteered to play left field last season. The 6-foot, 225-pounder is not a spectacular athlete, but McDonnell said he put in long hours to remake his body and become a credible outfielder.

Once Dominguez left, Wunderlich moved back to his natural position of third base. The only problem was, he couldn't throw the ball this fall as he recovered from shoulder surgery. McDonnell made some adjustments for him during practice.

"We had to have a Wunderlich rule in our scrimmages," McDonnell said. "If he caught a ground ball, the hitter was out. The hitters got frustrated because he catches everything. And you look at the season now, and he still catches every ball."

Wunderlich's .991 fielding percentage proves that. He might not have the physical tools of Dominguez, but his baseball instincts and toughness bring respect in the Louisville clubhouse. Teammates know there aren't many tests Phil Wunderlich can't ace.

Brian Bennett covers Big East football for ESPN.com.