If the other shoe dropped on Tuesday then on Wednesday, it kicked Cincinnati squarely in the gut. Following a season of defying the odds, the Bearcats are going home pretty early, as they fell 7-6 to the UCF Knights on a walkoff home run in an elimination game of the American Athletic Conference tournament.
The loss is especially crushing because UC finally got it going (somewhat) with the lumber, banging out four runs in the first six innings to push the 'Cats up 4-0, while twice scratching out a run to take the lead once the game tightened up in the later innings.
But, even if more runs crossed the plate, the Bearcats once again wasted a ton of chances, leaving 16 runners on base, part of 27 LOBs over the course of their two games at the AAC tourney. Obviously, in a 9-1 loss to Houston, pushing across a few more of those baserunners wouldn't make up for the eight-run deficit, but in a one-run game that was decided in extra innings, having multiple innings end when runners were still on is painful to say the least.
Still, with staff ace Andrew Zellner zooming through the first six frames, it looked like UC would still win despite taking a hit to the old BARISP.
Disaster struck, however, in the bottom of the seventh inning. With runners on the corners and one out, back-to-back-to-back singles from UCF broke the shutout, a throwing error got the Knights closer and Brennan Bozeman's RBI double evened things at 4-4. Zellner still ended up finishing the inning, but he didn't get the ball in the eighth, ending up with a line of seven innings, 10 hits, four runs (three earned) and three strikeouts on 97 pitches.
After Zellner carried the load for the usually quiet Cincinnati bats all season, the lineup returned the favor in the next half inning, as R.J. Thompson knocked in a run with a sacrifice fly to push the Bearcats back ahead.
It appeared that a 5-4 advantage would be enough for UC to escape with a win, but Doug Lowe II blew a multi-inning save opportunity when Luke Hamblin's single brought in a run and sent the game to extra innings.
The UC offense refused to go down without a fight, as an RBI single from A.J. Bumpass scored Treg Haberkorn and once again gave the Bearcats the lead.
A.J. Kullman, who has been a steady force in the bullpen and had come in to clean up the ninth inning, couldn't close the door as he let up a leadoff triple, an RBI sac fly and the walkoff homer to Morgan. If you'd like to experience the painful memories once again (or for the first time for you lucky few), here are some highlights of the game.
So, the Bearcats lost. They ended up just where they were supposed to (based on preseason predictions), quickly knocked out of the AAC tourney and not even remotely close to the running for the AAC title. However, there are some reasons to be hopeful on this dreary day.
First, the team's 26 wins were the most since 2011. Second, Andrew Zellner is part of a large number of young players that should be back in the fold again a year from now, although he may want to strike why the iron is hot and enter the MLB Draft. The rest of the staff will remain largely in tact as J.T. Perez (6-5, 2.97 ERA), Kullman (4-3, 3.20 ERA), David Orndorff (3-4 3.57 ERA) and A.J. Olasz (2-6, 4.15 ERA) are all returning. Both of the team's offensive cornerstones will be available as well with third baseman Connor McVey (.292, AAC-leader in stolen bases) and second baseman Kyle Mottice. In addition, Ryan Noda (.250/.341/.423 6 home runs, 34 RBI) should help make the graduation of power-hitting catcher Woody Wallace easier to swallow.
That "wait 'till next year" mentality doesn't change the fact that UC was a major disappointment in the AAC tourney, but it certainly makes it clear that things are only going to get better.