The journey Cincinnati departed on on Feb. 19 is nearly at an end, as the regular season will be over for the Bearcats inside the next week. However, before putting the schedule in the rear view and getting prepared for the postseason, they must finish things off. Ending on a high note could be critical to ensuring some success in the bonus season known as the American Athletic Conference tournament.
Cincinnati will play its last conference series of the season this weekend, starting Thursday at Memphis, but there is still one little test standing in its way before that. On Tuesday night, the Bearcats will host the Western Carolina Catamounts in the final home game of the season and last non-league test before the NCAA Tournament, assuming they make the field of 64. (#Believe).
Against non-league foes, UC is 12-18, so not great. Granted, the Bearcats have played a difficult out-of-conference slate, with tests against national powers like LSU, Coastal Carolina and Ole Miss. On the flip side, they are 17-7 at home this season, which has been the biggest reason for the surprising success they have enjoyed.
In WCU, the Bearcats are facing a team that has held its own this season, posting a 25-25 overall mark and a 15-9 record in Southern Conference play, putting it right in the thick of the conference title chase. A power hitting lineup littered with .300 hitters fuels the Catamounts. Matt Smith (.384/.487/.584, 10 home runs, 44 RBI) and Bryson Bowman (.337/.456/.735, 18 home runs, 53 RBI) are the bash brothers of this squad. Bowman is tied for third in the country in home runs and WCU is tied for the fifth in the nation in dingers (69).
That type of offensive juggernaut is not an opponent UC can hope to keep up with. Fresh off scoring a total of two runs against Houston this past weekend, UC is at the very bottom of the AAC in team batting average (.232) and has less than half as many home runs (30) as WCU.
So, how can Cincinnati hope to compete with these bomb-blasting boys from WCU? Simple.
First, take advantage of the Catamounts' sorry pitching. WCU has a staff ERA of 6.35, with B.J. Nobles (3.72 ERA) the only pitcher with an ERA below 4.00.
The second prong of this plan lies on the Bearcats' pitchers. Although the bullpen has not always been lights out, Cincinnati has a nice assortment of starters. Andrew Zellner and J.T. Perez will not be on the bump, as they will be needed for this weekend against Memphis. David Orndorff (3.54 ERA) just pitched on Sunday so it is likely that A.J. Olasz (1-5, 4.41 ERA) will get the nod for this one. The sophomore left-hander got the start last time the Bearcats played on Tuesday. The results were not amazing, as he allowed four runs on three hits and five walks across two innings against Louisville. His start before that, also on a Tuesday, lasted four innings, during which he allowed just one earned run (four total) on six hits against Ohio State. Olasz may be given more leeway in this one as bullpen maestro A.J. Kullman (3.18 ERA) is coming off a 6 1/3-inning effort on Sunday.
Tasking the bottom portion of the rotation with keeping the Catamounts down is a bit of a dangerous proposition, but the Bearcats don't have much of a choice. They cannot afford to use one of their top arms in a non-league matchup that will ultimately mean nothing since the Bearcats, at 23-27-1, are not exactly trying to improve their NCAA Tournament resume. Its AAC title or nothing.