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Series Preview: Cincinnati Bearcats at UConn Huskies

Its a weekend in Connecticut with the 2016 AAC champions.

Andrew Higley/GoBearcats.com

General Info

Matchup: Cincinnati Bearcats (20-20, 5-7 AAC) at UConn Huskies (22-17, 7-5 AAC)

Location: J.O. Christian Field Storrs, Connecticut

Series History: Despite claiming two of three from the Huskies in last year’s season series, UConn leads the all-time series 18-11.

Times/Probable Starters

  • Game One - Friday April 28 3 p.m. J.T. Perez (2-5, 3.90 ERA) vs. Tim Cate (3-3, 4.23 ERA)
  • Game Two - Saturday April 29 3 p.m. TBA vs. Wills Montgomerie (4-2, 4.17 ERA)
  • Game Three - Sunday April 30 1 p.m. TBA vs. Mason Feole (5-1, 3.12 ERA)

Meet the Opponent

It was a wonderful start to the American Athletic Conference schedule for the Huskies, who swept East Carolina and Memphis in back-to-back weekends to race out to a 6-0 start in league action. Their play has returned toward the norm, along with their record lately though, as the 22-17 overall squad is now 7-5 against the AAC following a sweep at the hands of Tulane and a 1-2 weekend against UCF.

UConn is buoyed by a solid pitching staff, highlighted by strikeout machine Wills Montgomerie, Friday night starter Tim Cate and reliable third arm Mason Feole. Montgomerie, a junior right-hander, has punched out 81 batters across a team-high 58 1/3 innings, although his 4.17 ERA leaves him outside of ace status. Cate has pitched to a 4.23 ERA in seven starts (38 13 innings) and is a strikeout artist himself, slaying 55 batters via the K. Feole has the better ERA of the three (3.12) and has eaten up 52 innings. With those three leading the way, along with closer John Russell (3.28 ERA, 11 saves, 46 strikeouts in 24 23 innings) and Dan Rajkowski (1.77 ERA, 17 appearances), UConn has a team ERA of 3.94 and is most comfortable riding its hurlers for long stretches to relative success.

With a league-low 11 home runs on the season, this is a team that does not rely on the long ball much at all. Outfielder Isaac Feldstein has smacked three dingers and driven in 25 runs, but he is only batting .243 and getting on base 32.7 percent of the time. Shortstop Anthony Prato leads the team in batting average (.311), but he has not played in the last three games due to an injury. With Prato out, third baseman Willy Yahn (.309/.351/.398) and catcher Zac Susi (.303/.370/.428) are the top hitters.

Game One Breakdown

This is J.T. Perez’s staff now for the Bearcats. Andrew Zellner’s struggles and recent absence has opened up an opportunity for Perez, who really excelled his most recent start. Last Friday, as he took the hill to start a series against East Carolina, Perez scattered seven hits across seven shutout innings, while striking out eight batters. It was easily his best work of the season and helped him change the setting on his ERA from ghastly to solid (3.90).

Treg Haberkorn went 2-for-3 with three RBI in that game while shortstop Manny Rodriguez went 2-for-3 with two RBI. Rodriguez has been coming on strong, giving the Bearcats a nice bat at the bottom of the lineup, even if he is still slashing just .250/.295/.354 on the season. However, those numbers were much more dire before he hit .438 over the last five games. Rodriguez and the rest of the Bearcats’ bats will deal with Tate on Friday night, a scary thought as even with Rodriguez’s hot streak, UC is still last in the AAC in batting average (.245) and on-base percentage (.331).

Game Two Breakdown

For the second-straight week, Ty Neal is remaining mum on who will start Saturday and Sunday. Whether he’s doing this to gain some sort of strategic advantage or just forgetting to fill in the lineup card is a mystery, but we can guess at who will represent the Bearcats. Zellner would appear to be the obvious choice assuming he his healthy, but as long as he is going to remain mysteriously unavailable, Neal will likely go with David Orndorff, who has pitched in a number of different roles this season. He has been a Sunday starter, a reliever and last week started the Saturday portion of a three-game series with ECU. He didn’t exactly shut the Pirates down, allowing five runs (four earned) on nine hits before being chased with two outs in sixth inning. Orndorff still owns a respectable 3.66 ERA, but he doesn’t strike out a ton of batters and is letting opposing hitters bat .261.

UC’s bats will be put through the ringer (at least strikeout wise) again on Saturday against Montgomerie, who is a boom-or-bust kind of guy. He’ll either send you back to the dugout shaking your head or to first base. He illustrated the point last Saturday against UCF, striking out seven batters but allowing six hits, two walks and five runs in 5 13 innings.

Game Three Breakdown

With Orndorff promoted, Nathan Kroger was pushed into starting duty last Sunday to close out the ECU series. He, and the four other UC pitchers that got into the game, did not pitch very effectively. Perhaps most concerning was the work of bullpen stalwart A.J. Kullman, who had his ERA balloon to 5.29 after he let up five runs in just one inning of work. Unless Zellner returns, Sunday will likely be another game that will stretch the bullpen thin. That won’t be as much of a problem this week since the Bearcats did not play any midweek games.

Feole had his first real misstep of the season last Sunday against UCF and he’ll try to correct course against the Bearcats. Hopefully he’ll fail and UC will be able to replicate the seven hits and five runs the Knights got off the freshman.

Prediction

Over the last two weekends, the defending AAC champions have looked mortal, even weak. UC is clearly not an upper echelon team in this conference, but with Perez hitting his stride and some pop in the lineup, it is far from an easy out. UConn will likely win this series, but I like UC to steal at least one in the Nutmeg State.