After a long and grueling four-month season, it is postseason time for conferences all around the country. By Memorial Day, the automatic bids for the NCAA Tournament will be clinched and the rest of the field will come from at-large bids.
For the Cincinnati Bearcats, this week presents a chance to put an exclamation point on a season that has been filled with overachieving across the board. When the AAC conference preseason poll first came out, it left the Bearcats at the bottom considering the futility of the past few seasons for the black and red. Cincinnati proved everyone wrong by leading the standings through the majority of conference play, eventually finishing fourth in the standings.
They finished one spot ahead of the team that was expected to be the one to beat in the AAC this season, the Houston Cougars. Being the fourth and fifth seeds respectively, the two teams drew each other in the first round of the AAC tourney for the second straight season. Last season, it was a No. 1 vs No. 8 matchup that saw the Cougars rally to defeat the Bearcats.
Since the AAC was created, the Cougars have had the Bearcats' number. Cincinnati is just 2-8 against Houston with their most recent win coming two weeks ago in a home series against the Cougars. The Bearcats offense that has struggled mightily throughout the season was bested by the top pitching staff in the AAC in two of the three games of that series. The Bearcats scored just two runs in those three games and probably would have been swept had it not been for J.T. Perez (6-5, 2.97, 58 Ks) tossing a complete-game shutout in the second game of the series.
Despite the two losses, the Bearcats pitching staff held their own against one of the better offenses in the conference. Staff ace, Andrew Zellner (7-4, 2.21, 63Ks), baffled the Cougars for the first six innings then made one huge mistake by allowing a two-run home run to Justin Motemayor which the Bearcats could not overcome. Zellner will get the ball against the Cougars again in this first-round matchup looking to avenge that game.
For Houston, they have three starters with ERA's under three which helped build its conference best 2.50 ERA. The Cougars are led by Seth Romero (5-4, 2.27, 102 Ks), who tossed a complete-game against Zellner in the series opening win a few weeks ago. Romero's numbers are made possible by his impeccable command of his pitches. His 102 strikeouts compliment just 26 walks for the southpaw. Opponents are just hitting .185 against Romer. Interestingly enough, he also has five balks on the season which lead the AAC.
In a season of surprises, the Bearcats have proved many wrong and have set themselves up for a great future as well. Considering the results of previous matchups against the Cougars, it will be a surprise if the Bearcats can beat the Cougars for their first postseason win since defeating South Florida in 2008 to advance to the Big East Championship game. The Bearcats know they can play and beat Houston, much like they have done with several of the AAC teams ahead of them. Anything is possible in the postseason and one spark could keep the magic for the Bearcats going.
Quick Notes: American Athletic Conference Tournament First Round
Records: Houston (33-23, 11-13) fifth in AAC, Cincinnati (26-28-1, 13-10-1) fourth in AAC
Venue: Bright House Field, Clearwater, Florida
TV: CBS Sports Network
Game Time: Tuesday May 24, 3 p.m.
Houston: May 21 (Tulane, L 4-3)
Cincinnati: May 21 (at Memphis, W 4-3 in 10 innings)
May 15, 2016
Houston 4, Cincinnati 0
Players to Watch:
Houston: Corey Julks (UTL)
The Cougars feature two of the best hitters in the AAC with Corey Julks and Joe Davis. Since the last time the Bearcats faced the Cougars, Julks has passed Davis for the team lead in batting average (.341), and also leads the team with a .412 OBP. The normal Cougar lineup normally features Julks after Davis, creating a formidable middle of the lineup for Houston.
Cincinnati: Woody Wallace (C)
For Wallace, these games in Clearwater could be his last as a Bearcat if they cannot win the AAC tournament. The Bearcats will need one last amazing effort out of Wallace if they want to compete for the tournament title. Wallace leads the team in home runs with six, despite a .220 batting average, and has started every game this season. A couple of dingers could go a long way to get the Bearcat offense rolling, and end Wallace's collegiate career the best way possible.