Matchup: Cincinnati Bearcats (12-12) vs. Memphis Tigers (16-8)
Location: Marge Schott Stadium Cincinnati, Ohio
Series History: Since joining the American Athletic Conference, UC has a 10-6 lead over Memphis in head-to-head matchups. That included two series wins last season. However, the Tigers have dominated the all-time series, with more than twice as many wins as losses against the Bearcats (68-31).
- Game One - Friday March 31 6 p.m. Andrew Zellner (2-1, 3.00 ERA) vs. Alex Hicks (3-1, 3.62 ERA)
- Game Two - Saturday April 1 4 p.m. J.T. Perez (1-4, 4.29 ERA) vs. Drew Crosby (4-0, 3.16 ERA)
- Game Three - Sunday April 2 1 pm TBA vs. Connor Alexander (4-1, 3.67 ERA)
Meet the Opponent
This Tigers team is pretty good. Before an 8-3 loss to Mississippi State on Tuesday, they had won six games in a row. Despite the loss, they still have twice as many wins as setbacks (16-8), including a 3-1 record on the road. That’s not the type of sample size that proves anything, but it at least hints at Memphis’ ability to travel.
Memphis isn’t great with the bats, although it is far from terrible thanks to the work of Andy Bowman and Tyler Webb. Bowman, who plays first base or DH, bats in the middle of the order, which has given him plenty of chances to drive batters in, which he has done well with 18 RBI. However, it is his .348/.439/.561 slash line that really leaps off the page. Center fielder Webb (.344/.380/.500) is another player with exceptional contact skills, although he doesn’t work many walks. After Bowman and Webb, the rest of the roster is pretty pedestrian average wise, although their is certainly some pop with Brandon Grudzielanek (four home runs), Trent Turner (three) and Alec Trela (three).
I’d tend to say Memphis is better when it comes to pitching than hitting, thanks mostly to its rotation. Drew Crosby, Alex Hicks and Connor Alexander, who will all be pitching this weekend, each have an ERA below 4.00 and have thrown more than 30 innings. Hicks has missed the most bats, with 32 strikeouts in 32 2⁄3 innings, while Alexander (31) and Crosby (27) have been no slouches themselves. Blake Bennett (1.80 ERA) and Colton Hathcock (3.68 ERA) get the most work out of the pen, with Hathcock a fearsome strikeout pitcher, racking up 23 punchouts in just 14 2⁄3 innings of work.
What has worked against the solid pitching and has made strikeouts that much more valuable to the staff is Memphis’s struggles on defense. The Tigers are last in the American Athletic Conference in fielding percentage (.962).
Game One Breakdown
Its time for conference play to get going this evening, as Andrew Zellner takes the hill for the hosting Bearcats. Zellner hasn’t taken the “leap” from last year but that’s just fine since he hasn’t regressed either. In seven appearances (six starts), he has pitched to a respectable 3.00 ERA while striking out 30 batters in a team-high 36 innings pitched. Memphis will remember Zellner as the pitcher that threw a complete game shutout against them last season, as well as a nine-inning, two-run effort later in the year.
Hicks will be the first pitcher that the Bearcats will face in AAC play this weekend. The sophomore right-hander doesn’t need to be too frightened since UC has been a pretty miserable offensive team. Aside from the occasional eruption, the team has consistently failed to hit much, ranking last in the AAC in all the slash line categories (.233/.319/.351) while scoring the fewest runs (104).
Game Two Breakdown
J.T. Perez gutted through five innings last Saturday against Northern Kentucky but it wasn’t enough. The lefty allowed three runs on six hits in five innings (but he did have five strikeouts!) and fell to 1-4 on the campaign. Wins are not the most useful pitching metric, but since Perez has been eating up innings (35 2/3), it would be better if he was able to cut his ERA down from its current standing (4.29) and stop losing games.
Perez will need his best stuff (and he still has good stuff) when facing Crosby, who has been Memphis’ most effective starter, tallying a 3.16 ERA in 31 1⁄3 innings. However, batters are hitting .276 against him, so he’s far from untouchable. While he is facing a team that doesn’t hit near .270 overall, the fact that A.J. Bumpass is still crushing the ball (.349/.446/.616, 13 extra base hits) means there is still some life left in the Bearcats lineup. Adding fire to that argument is the sudden power surge of Ryan Noda. I predicted that the Bearcats’ first baseman would hit more than seven home runs (his previous career-high) before the season. Entering last weekend, that prediction didn’t look great. But Noda has had a strong week, launching three dingers to bring himself to four on the year.
Game Three Breakdown
UC is playing possum once again and has not named a starter for Sunday’s contest. However we can guess that Clayton Colvin will fill the role after doing so in each of the last two series finales. Colvin pitched well against Northeastern (5 IP, 2 ER), but was pulled after allowing one run in one inning last Sunday against Northern Kentucky. That means this will likely be a piece-it-together type of game, with A.J. Kullman, Jarod Yoakam, David Orndorff and the rest of the pen getting work.
While a mish-mash of pitchers will try to tame the Tigers, Connor Alexander will attempt to lull the Bearcats to sleep. He can strike out batters (31 in 34 1⁄3 innings) but has been particularly strong at pounding the strike zone, with only five walks allowed.
During the 2016 season, UC really had the upper hand against the Tigers. I suspect that will reverse this year. Bumpass and Noda are in the midst of hitting tears, but the rest of the lineup just hasn’t been good enough to support a decent at best and disappointing at worst pitching staff. Memphis’ talented hitters and solid rotation give it a leg up and will lead to series victory, maybe even a sweep.