On May 19, 1971, the Mars 2 probe was sent into orbit by the former U.S.S.R. Deep in the trenches of the Cold War and the race to space, man had already made it to the moon (cue the USA chants. Sorry, Toronto) thanks to NASA but that did not stop the former Soviet Union and mankind in general from continuing to strive for more.
Cincinnati already reached its moon, winning 24 games this season, including 11 wins in conference play, marking the first time since 2011 and the first time since helping form the American Athletic Conference it has had double-digit league wins. Starting Thursday night, the Bearcats will attempt to reach the next celestial body in the solar system, as it fights to earn an AAC title and finish the regular season at .500. That second task is something the 2011 squad was the last to do as well.
For UC to win the AAC regular season title a few things need to happen. First, the Bearcats have to sweep Memphis. Second, Houston has to sweep Tulane. Third, ECU has to lose at least once against UCF. Finally, UConn has to lose at least once against USF. That is a lot of moving parts, but its not completely out of the question.
Even if finishing .500 doesn't earn it a trophy or banner, it will still continue Cincinnati's upward trajectory. It started with Ian Happ's incredible year in 2015 and his selection in the first round of the 2015 MLB Draft. Now, a return to competitive play has made some start reminiscing about the early to mid-2000s when the team popped off 30-win seasons semi-regularly.
The opponent this weekend is one you already know: Memphis. The Tigers are not just the team embarrassing, I mean positioning itself for a Big 12 invite. Its also the same Memphis team that Cincinnati took two out of three from in late April, including a 16-4 win that featured the Bearcats' biggest offensive eruption of the season. It helps that the Tigers have not exactly been the Chicago Cubs this season, with a record of just 18-35 overall, which includes an 8-13 success rate against the AAC.
Just like Cincy, Memphis has very little power (AAC-low 22 home runs) and does not hit for a particularly impressive average (.251). Some teams can find success with such offensive difficulty, after all, East Carolina has just 25 dingers this season and its sitting second in the AAC standings. However, ECU has a solid staff (3.36 ERA) while Memphis is easily the worst pitching team in the conference (5.30 ERA). No. 1 and No. 2 starters Colton Hathcock (5-7, 3.69 ERA, 66 Ks) and Matt Ferguson (5-4, 3.99 ERA, 48 Ks) are the most consistent arms, but even they would be No. 3 starters at best on the staff for Cincinnati or any of the other contending teams in the conference.
Speaking of the Bearcats' staff, it deserves the lion's share of the credit for Cincinnati's much improved season. With a pair of aces pitching Fridays and Saturdays (although it will be Thursday and Friday this week), the Bearcats usually find themselves in competitive games at the very least. Andrew Zellner (6-4, 2.23 ERA) and J.T. Perez (6-4. 2.92 ERA), the second of which just earned AAC weekly honors, have opened a donut shop together with all the zeroes they've hung on scoreboards. Each has done a stellar job of keeping the bullpen fresh, with seven complete games between the two, including a pair last weekend against Houston. David Orndorff (3-4, 3.54 ERA) is likely the starter for Saturday, but thanks to A.J. Olasz, Ty Neal will not have to worry about overexerting any of his bullpen arms.
As the sun sets over FedEx Park on Thursday night, you will likely catch a glimpse of a nearly full moon, weather permitting, rising into the Memphis night. You might even catch a glimpse of Mars, one of five visible planets from Earth. However, the Bearcats on the field will have its sights set on another frontier and by Saturday, we'll know if they've reached it.