Matchup: Cincinnati Bearcats (26-23, 8-10 AAC) vs. UCF Knights (34-15, 11-7 AAC)
Location: Marge Schott Stadium Cincinnati, Ohio
Series History: Last season, Cincinnati dropped two of three in the regular season to UCF and then got knocked out of the American Athletic Conference Tournament by the Knights with a 7-6 loss in extra innings. UC is 3-7 all-time against the Knights.
- Game One - Friday May 12 6 p.m. J.T. Perez (2-6, 4.26 ERA) vs.Robby Howell (8-0, 3.44 ERA)
- Game Two - Saturday May 13 4 p.m. Andrew Zellner (3-4, 4.99 ERA) vs.Chris Williams (2-3, 3.23 ERA)
- Game Three - Sunday May 14 12 p.m. A.J. Kullman (5-5, 5.02 ERA) vs. Joe Sheridan (8-3, 3.21 ERA)
Meet the Opponent
The Knights do two things really, really well. Like, stupidly well. They pitch their tails off and steal bases like there’s no tomorrow. They rank fourth in the country in team ERA (2.66) and 15th in strike to walk ratio (2.95). Meanwhile, they have 93 stolen bases, which is the 10th-most in the country. That strategy has turned more than a few games into wins, as UCF is 34-15 overall and has won its last four conference series to rocket up the American Athletic Conference standings.
What is somewhat interesting, is that even with that excellent team ERA, the Knights’ best starter (Joe Sheridan) is only fifth in the conference in earned run average (3.00) among qualified pitchers. While that is a fine ERA, what has kept the Knights’ so low in the ERA department has been a lock down bullpen, featuring five hurlers who have thrown at least 10 innings and have an ERA below 2.00. In total, the Knights’ relievers have a 1.53 ERA, compared to a 3.46 ERA from starters. Bryce Tucker (1.19 ERA, 30 1⁄3 innings, 50 strikeouts, seven walks) is unbelievably nasty. Opponents are only batting .154 off of him while he strikes out anything that moves. Thaddeus Ward (0.59 ERA, 30 1⁄3 innings) has allowed foes to bat .245 and has limited damage better than most.
Second baseman Matthew Mika bats toward the middle of the lineup for the Knights, but he is the team’s best base stealer, with 25 in 27 attempts. He is also batting a crisp .296 but does nothing in ways of power, slugging just .346 with zero home runs. First baseman Rylan Thomas has only stolen seven bases but he has launched 11 home runs and driven in 44 runs while slashing .297/.351/.527. Table setters Eli Putnam (.332/405/.542, seven home runs, 15 steals) and Luke Hamblin (.316/.431/.418, 16 steals) are on-base maestros with wheels at the top of the lineup.
Game One Breakdown
According to UCF’s game notes, Andrew Zellner will start for UC on Friday and while that could happen, I’d expect J.T. Perez to continue to get the Friday nod, especially since the Bearcats have not announced a starter yet. Perez has been sent out on Friday nights the last few weeks and Ty Neal may not want to mess with the rhythm of the staff. Perez is sporting a 2-6 overall record and a 4.26 ERA, but he has been the best and most consistent starter for the Bearcats. That’s even after he was chased after 2 1⁄3 innings last weekend against Memphis, when he took his sixth loss of the season even during a series win for UC.
Perez (or Zellner) will be opposed by senior right-hander Robby Howell for UCF. He is a perfect 8-0 on the season and is striking out nearly a batter per inning while boasting a 3.44 ERA. He pitched 6 2⁄3 serviceable innings for the Knights last weekend against Tulane, allowing four runs on six hits but also striking out nine in 6 2⁄3 frames. The Knights won the game 11-4 and ended up taking two of three from the Green Wave.
Game Two Breakdown
If Perez goes on Friday, then Zellner should see the field on Saturday. If not, it is probably because their roles are reversed. Either way, Zellner appears to be back in the rotation after missing some time. He got a ton of offensive support in his last start, as the Bearcats buried Memphis 13-6. To his credit, Zellner didn’t need all that much support, as he only allowed one earned run over six innings of solid work. With his ERA back below .500, albeit barely, and a quality start in his back pocket, the right-hander is hopefully back to normal.
Zellner was helped to a win in his last start by the bats of R.J. Thompson, Connor McVey, Joey Thomas and Ryan Noda. Of those four, Thompson has been the most on fire, while Noda has found his power stroke, sending balls over the fence in three of the last four games to bring his season total to nine.
Noda will try to find another pitch or two to drive against UCF’s Chris Williams, who may have just a 2-3 record but his 3.23 ERA shows that he is better than his win/loss mark would indicate.
Game Three Breakdown
We’ll pencil A.J. Kullman in as the starter for the finale, but have the erasers ready as Neal could use a number of other options as well. Kullman did not pitch earlier this week in wins over Xavier and Western Carolina, but he did throw five quality innings last Sunday as the starter against Memphis, allowing just one run. It was only his second start of the season and he still owns an ugly 5.02 ERA but perhaps Neal will try to squeeze out another strong outing from the sophomore.
It will be tough sledding for whoever starts for UC since UCF will counter with freshman standout Joe Sheridan, who has a 3.21 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 56 innings. He has let up more walks than the Knights might like (22), so there are some weaknesses that can be taken advantage of.
Before we get to the prediction portion of this post, its worth talking about base-running once more, a strength for UCF but an area that UC defends pretty well, as Thomas has thrown out more would-be base stealers than any catcher in the conference (23). Look for him to be ready to fire his cannon at a moment’s notice.
Even if Thomas deters UCF from unleashing its stolen base machine, UC is in for a brutally difficult weekend. The Knights don’t give up runs and the Bearcats don’t score many, even with Noda and Thompson in the middle of hot streaks. I’m not sure I even see one win coming UC’s way this weekend, unless Zellner and Perez both reclaim their status from 2016.