Matchup: Cincinnati Bearcats (16-16, 2-4 AAC) at USF Bulls (28-5, 4-2 AAC)
Location: USF Baseball Stadium (real original, guys) Tampa, Florida
Series History: Once again, here is a southern school that has eaten Cincinnati’s lunch historically, with 41 wins in 59 all-time meetings. USF has won 23 of 27 games in Tampa and 15 of the last 18 overall matchups, although UC stole two of three from the Bulls in the only series they played a year ago.
- Game One - Thursday April 13 6:30 p.m. Andrew Zellner (2-3, 5.49 ERA) vs. Phoenix Sanders (4-0, 2.13 ERA)
- Game Two - Friday April 14 6:30 p.m. J.T. Perez (1-5, 4.60 ERA) vs. Shane McClanahan (4-1, 2.76 ERA)
- Game Three - Saturday April 15 12 p.m. TBA vs. TBA
Meet the Opponent
You’d be hard pressed to find a more balanced team than the Bulls. They can hit, pitch and field better than just about any team in the American Athletic Conference. They lead the league in batting average (.316), ranking 12th nationally, and are tied for the top spot with Houston when it comes to ERA (2.52), which is good enough for a place in the top five teams in the country. On top of all that, they have committed the fewest errors in the AAC (20), just ahead of Cincinnati (21) for the league lead.
To shut down the Bulls offense you need to navigate your way through and endless run of .300 hitters. Six batters that step to the plate feature an averarge at or above that holy mark, including shortstop Kevin Merrell. All he’s done is slash .425/.511/.633 with four home runs and 22 RBI while stealing 17 bases. He has to be one of, if no the, frontrunner for the conference's player of the year award. Once you move past Merrell, things get, uh, well they don’t get easier. Duke Stunkel and Coco Montes are both hitting .360, with Montes adding four home runs, while Luke Borders (.328/.416/.477) and David Villar (.322/.396/.508) both have power and at least 30 RBI. Joe Genord, who is hovering right at the .300 plateau, leads the team with five home runs. Then there’s centerfielder Garrett Zech, the underachiever of the team, who is “only” batting .281 with a .400 on-base percentage and 14 steals. Yikes is that lineup frightening.
Luckily the pitching is...well it is also dominant. Led by staff aces Phoenix Sanders (4-0, 2.13 ERA 67 Ks) and Shane McClanahan (4-1, 2.76, 62 Ks) the Bulls limit baserunners and contact so well its a wonder teams are able to put rallies of any kind together. A staff predicated on the strikeout (AAC-high 362 this season), there are also a number of solid bullpen arms, with Joe Cavallaro (1.50 ERA, 46 Ks in 30 innings) one of three relievers with at least 20 innings pitched and an ERA below 2.00.
Game One Breakdown
Although official starters have not been announced, we can assume Andrew Zellner will take the hill on Thursday in the series opener. Actually, can we assume that? Zellner came into the year with high expectations after a stellar junior campaign. However, he has sputtered as a senior, especially in the the last few outings. Zellner only got one out before being yanked last Friday against Tulane. He surrendered five runs in that time and the Bearcats lost 16-8. Before that, he went all of three innings and let up seven runs against Memphis.
Zellner will now take the hill facing a USF team that rakes more than a father of three in the suburbs during October. Plus he will likely be opposed by the dominant Sanders. Let’s hope he’s been able to work out his issues this past week.
Zellner can’t do it alone, of course, and he may need more help than the Bearcats are used to supplying. They rank last in the league in batting average (.250) and runs scored (154) even if first baseman Ryan Noda has been launching balls deep into the outfield regularly the last few weeks.
Game Two Breakdown
As long as we’re assuming starting pitchers, J.T. Perez should slot in for the second game. Like Zellner, he was excellent a year ago but hasn’t found his footing in 2017. Wins and losses shouldn’t dictate how a pitcher is evaluated, but there’s something to the fact that Perez is just 1-5 this season, with a less than ideal 4.60 ERA to boot. Perez took that fifth loss this past Saturday when Tulane banged out five runs before chasing him away in the fifth. A.J. Kullman came in and did mop up duty, allowing one run over the final 4 2⁄3 innings. Kullman has been an innings eater out of the pen, with 27 2⁄3 frames under his belt even if his run limiting has not been strong (4.88 ERA).
Game Three Breakdown
Ty Neal has cycled through a few game three starters, with David Orndorff and Clayton Colvin the usual suspects, although Orndorff began making a living as a reliever for some time. However, Orndorff started the series finale against Tulane and was the only UC pitcher to really keep the Green Wave in check. He may have allowed eight hits, but he kept Tulane to just one run while pushing his ERA down below 3.00.
Another nice development for UC in that win over Tulane, as well as Tuesday’s win over Ohio State, was the seeming return to form of third baseman Connor McVey. A dangerous hitter and base stealer last season, McVey has struggled to string hits together. However, he went 1-for-3 against Tulane on Sunday and 2-for-5 against Ohio State. He has now brought is season slash line to a respectable .277/.390/.403. A continued ascension from McVey would be a nice addition to a lineup that features very few consistent threats outside of Noda, A.J. Bumpass and R.J. Thompson.
Uncertainty is not something you want to be dealing with when a team of USF’s caliber is on the other baseline. With Zellner and Perez both question marks in terms of effectiveness, its tough to believe UC will be able to pull off the balancing act of shutting down USF’s top flight offense and squeaking out enough runs to win against USF’s loaded pitching staff. UC saved itself from a sweep against Tulane last weekend, but I fear the Bulls will finish the job.