We are entering a new era of Cincinnati Bearcats baseball. After Ty Neal abruptly stepped down as head coach and Scott Googins was hired away from Xavier, the program is headed in a different direction than it was just a few weeks ago.
Slow progress had been the theme during the Neal era. This past season, the Bearcats came very close to reaching 30 wins. For a lot of programs that might not be much of a milestone, but we’re talking about a team that won 30 games only twice in the previous 10 seasons. It is also a team that went just 15-41 two years ago, the second of Neal’s tenure. Not only did the Bearcats win 28 games in 2017, they earned some impressive victories, including an upset of then No. 1 Louisville. For all intents and purposes, it appeared that Neal was keeping the boat steady, as he got UC to its largest single season win total during his run.
Whether it was by choice or due to pressure from the higher ups at UC, Neal decided to leave a program that maybe wasn’t on the rise, but didn’t appear to be regressing either.
Barring the conspiracy theory that he is just a sleeper agent for Xavier, Googins seems like an excellent hire. He helped to build a strong program across town, while reaching for more ambitious heights than UC had been clawing at over the last decade. Xavier one six regular season or conference tournament titles under Googins and is coming off of back-to-back regional finals appearances in the NCAA Tournament. For those counting at home, Cincinnati has not made the NCAA Tournament since 1974. That’s even when guys like Kevin Youkillis, Josh Harrison and Ian Happ strapped on the red and black. Googins has the pedigree to turn things around, as he did just that at Xavier.
But what about player development? The Bearcats have struck gold a few times during the last 20 years, specifically with Youkilis, Harrison and Happ, as well as Tony Campana, but they have failed to put together rosters full of MLB-level talent. That’s probably not going to change particularly soon, what with the bulk of top baseball talent usually choosing to play in the South or on the Left Coast. However, there are some players on the roster currently who have shown extreme promise.
Despite a cool down during the last half of the season, A.J. Bumpass broke out in his sophomore season, smacking 26 extra-base hits while slashing .287/.384/.491. Meanwhile, Connor McVey, who will be a senior in 2018, has excellent contact ability and speed. Plus there’s Ryan Noda, who hit a career-high nine home runs in 2017, which was the most by a Bearcat since Happ had 14 in 2015. If he can boost that number next season he will become just the sixth player in the last 10 years to reach double digit dingers.
Those established players don’t include youngsters like Jace Mercer and Eric Santiago, who both hit fairly well as freshmen.
Of course, all that promise on offense didn’t really do much considering the Bearcats ranked dead last in the American Athletic Conference in batting average (.251) and second to last in runs scored (290). However, Googins is a perfect hire to help. His Musketeers ranked third in the Big East in batting average this past season (.273) while far and away leading in home runs (61). UC had just about half that many (30).
On the pitching side of things, UC has had more trouble developing consistently dominant hurlers. Andrew Zellner was a first-team All-AAC pitcher in 2016, but his production fell off a cliff this past season. J.T. Perez is a lefty with strikeout stuff, but he suffered from the same inconsistencies as Zellner. With Zellner graduated, Perez has the chance to be the ace he looked like in 2016 while youngsters Nathan Kroger, Reese Robinson and Cam Alldred represent the future on the mound. All three had their moments in 2017, but there’s still a long way to go before we can consider the staff good enough to anchor the cause.
When looked at it realistically, UC is not an elite baseball program and it would take a lot to get it anywhere near there. However, Googins proved that success can be found despite being a geographic underdog. Although Neal, R.J. Thompson and Zellner are now gone, the Bearcats are largely in tact from yet another step forward season. Expecting more right away may not be smart, but if Bumpass continues to develop and Googins is able to help the rest of the lineup, which he did well at Xavier, there’s reason to believe UC will continue upward and not be dragged back down.