Matchup: Cincinnati Bearcats (27-26, 9-12 AAC) at No. 18 Houston Cougars (34-18, 13-8 AAC)
Location: Schroeder Park Houston, Texas
Series History: This isn’t one of those hotly contested conference rivalries. Houston is 34-8 all-time against Cincinnati, including series wins against the Bearcats in each of the last three years. The Cougars went 3-1 against UC last season, disposing of the ‘Cats in the first game of the American Athletic Conference Tournament.
- Game One - Thursday May 18 7:30 p.m. Andrew Zellner (3-5, 5.09 ERA) vs. Mitch Ullom (6-3, 3.36 ERA)
- Game Two - Friday May 19 7:30 p.m. A.J. Kullman (5-6, 4.70 ERA) vs. Trey Cumbie (8-1, 2.14 ERA)
- Game Three - Saturday May 20 2 p.m. TBA vs. TBA
Meet the Opponent
Houston is one of them good teams. The Cougars are ranked No. 18 in the country and sport an impressive 34-18 overall record. They are also in a three-way tie for first place in the AAC entering the final weekend of the regular season, matching USF and UCF with a 13-8 mark. That means there could be some scoreboard watching from the Cougars during this series.
Houston has gotten to this point of the season with such a solid resume thanks to strong hitting and pitching. Let’s start with the first area. Third baseman Jake Scheiner is the most fearsome bat in the AAC, slashing .345/.433/.655 with 14 home runs and 31 extra-base hits total. He leads the league in slugging percentage and dingers as well as total bases (129). As good as Scheiner is, he can’t do it all alone and he does not have to. Connor Wong (.302/.378/.509) is a beast from the leadoff spot, with 10 home runs of his own and 21 stolen bases. He also leads the AAC in runs scored (49). Then there’s Joe Davis (.305/.369/.465) and Corey Julks (.306/.392/.503). Julks has been excellent recently, hitting .467 with six runs, seven RBI and two runs on his way to being named AAC Player of the Week.
With a team ERA of 3.43, the Cougars certainly know how to pitch as well. Led by staff ace Trey Cumbie (8-1, 2.14 ERA, 69 Ks), Houston has a strong starting rotation and several reliable arms in the bullpen. Aaron Fletcher (1.41 ERA, 32 Ks, 32 innings, six saves) is the top reliever, but don’t sleep on Fred Villarreal (3.86 ERA, 35 innings) and Joey Pulido (3.98 ERA, 31 2⁄3 innings)
Game One Breakdown
Andrew Zellner returned to game one starter status last week against UCF and he did OK, allowing four runs on five hits in six innings. Its really too bad the senior has struggled so much because a year ago he was busy dazzling and tossing complete games. Zellner and his 5.09 ERA are in real danger against the Cougars, who can beat the ball into a pulp quickly. That means relievers like Nathan Kroger (2.91 ERA, 34 innings) and Reese Robinson (3.38 ERA, 26 2⁄3 innings) may need to be warming early on.
Mitch Ullom will be tasked with cooling off the bat of R.J. Thompson (.332/.408/.465) and keeping the rest of the Bearcats conference-worst offense to its normal habits. Although not the staff ace, Ullom should be up to the task. He is 6-3 with a 3.36 ERA this season despite being a very low strikeout guy (43 in 80 1⁄3 innings).
Game Two Breakdown
Ty Neal must be liking what he’s seen from A.J. Kullman down the stretch because the sophomore right-hander has been getting more work as a starter. Kullman was excellent last Saturday against UCF, nearly throwing a complete game before David Orndorff relieved him with two outs in the ninth. Even though Kullman took the loss in that one and has a far from ace-like ERA (4.70) he has proven capable of eating up innings and flashing consistency.
Assuming Kullman (and not J.T. Perez) gets the start on Friday, he will have a real duel on his hands with Cumbie pitching for Houston. Cumbie leads the AAC in ERA (2.14) and is 8-1 on the season. While wins should not be used as a major measuring stick of a pitcher’s value, its still impressive to have eight wins at this point in the season. Cumbie, like Ullom, doesn’t strikeout a ton of batters (69 in 80 innings) but he finds other ways to create soft contact, with three complete games under his belt.
Game Three Breakdown
Starters for Saturday’s series finale have not been set but odds are that Perez will get into the action for UC. Interestingly enough, the left-hander has suddenly taken on a relief role, pitching out of the bullpen twice in the last week. He struggled in both appearances, allowing two runs in 2⁄3 of an inning last Friday and three more during 1 2⁄3 innings on Sunday. Perez has thrown more innings than any pitcher on the team so he will get in at some point. Whether that’s as a starter or a reliever is yet to be seen.
Houston’s normal third starter, John King, has not pitched since April 25 due to scar tissue in his elbow. With King sidelined, Carter Henry has stepped up. His ERA isn’t fun to look at (5.60) if you are a Cougar fan but he has struck out 35 batters in 35 1⁄3 innings.
This one is going to hurt. UC is testing a very good Houston team with a lot to play for. I don’t want it to be this way, but Zellner and the rest of the staff is probably going to get shelled and Houston will win the series if not sweep the Bearcats right out of town.