If Cincinnati is looking for a model to follow in baseball, its that of the 2016 UConn Huskies, who made a surprise run to the 2016 American Athletic Conference title by winning the league’s tournament after finishing third in the conference standings at the end of the regular season.
After years of being stuck in mid-30 win purgatory, the Huskies finally made a run to the postseason last spring. If you want to toss some water on the fact that UConn is the defending AAC champion, you could point out they it never played a team seeded higher than it during the double-elimination tourney, but going 4-1 and winning the whole thing isn’t anything to scoff at.
The Huskies’ run could kind of be seen coming, as they rode into the postseason riding a heap of momentum. Starting with a 5-0 win over UMass on May 10, they won their last nine games of the regular season, and then the first two of the AAC tourney. They even snagged a win in the NCAA Tournament, taking a 7-6 victory over Georgia Tech in the first game of the Gainesville Regional. They couldn’t get the job done and move onto Super Regionals, however, falling by a combined three runs in their next two games.
In total, a 38-25 campaign is something to be proud of, and something UC would love to emulate. The Huskies built themselves up by winning at home (14-5) and on neutral fields (9-3), while hitting well, ranking second in team batting average (.274). It also helped that they employed the AAC Player of the Year (Joe DeRoch-Duffin), the Rookie Pitcher of the Year (Tim Cate) and the Coach of the Year (Jim Penders).
Players to Watch
Willy Yahn, 3B
An infielder by trade, Yahn fills in well at the top of the lineup because of his on-base skills. The 5’11” junior led UConn with a .319 batting average and also had a team-high in doubles (20) while driving in 46 runs. He did have 10 errors in the field, but with his team-high 88 hits, he usually outweighed those miscues with timely hitting. He did break his hand during the NCAA Tournament but played in the Cape Cod League over the summer and was an All-Star, so he should be just fine in 2017. He will be needed to anchor the top of the lineup since on-base machines Jack Sundberg and Bobby Melley have moved on.
John Toppa, OF
A strong freshman campaign makes Toppa a candidate to become a cornerstone of a team that lost a ton to graduation, including DeRoche-Duffin (.266/.382/.549, AAC-high 17 home runs) as well as Melley (.313/.438/.526), shortstop Bryan Daniello (.289/.353/.415) and Jack Sundberg (.258/.375/.379). Toppa played in 49 games, and started in 42 and produced solid numbers in batting (.303) and getting on base (.383), but was not much of a power threat, with just one home run in 155 at-bats.
Tim Cate, SP
After the offense led the way last season, Cato and the staff may be the leaders this year. Cate hurled well all season from the left side, producing a 2.73 ERA across 14 games, including 13 starts. He struck out 101 batters in 82 1⁄3 innings of work and held opponents to a .186 batting average. His position as ace of the staff isn’t likely to be lost, especially after Anthony Kay (9-2, 2.65 ERA) was selected in the MLB Draft.
Its tough to imagine that UConn will have as much success at it did last season. Almost the entire lineup has to be reworked and there will be a huge shortage in the power department in the wake of Melley and DeRoche-Duffin’s departure. Cate will give the team a chance to win on Fridays, but claiming series victories and keeping up appearances as the AAC champion will be difficult.