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Series Preview: Houston Cougars at Cincinnati Bearcats

The Cougars have a deep and effective pitching staff which will prove a major challenge for the Bearcats.

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For most fans in the Cincinnati area, MLB Opening Day is going to be a bit of a letdown this year, as the Reds’ first game of the season was postponed until Friday. But there is another baseball team in town that is still scheduled to play today. The Cincinnati Bearcats will host the Houston Cougars on Thursday at 6 p.m. to start a three-game series. While that game may also be moved, the series with the Cougars is still a key one that will play out over the weekend.

Editor’s note: Unfortunately, the Bearcats’ game on Thursday was also postponed. The series opener was moved to Friday at 1 p.m.

General Info

Matchup: Houston Cougars (16-9, 3-0 AAC) at Cincinnati Bearcats (10-12, 1-2 AAC)

Location: Marge Schott Stadium Cincinnati, Ohio

Series History: This isn’t what you’d call a competitive rivalry, as the Cougars are 36-9 all-time against the Bearcats. Last year, Houston took two out of three from the Bearcats in the final series of the regular season.

Times/Probable Starters

  • Game One - Friday March 30 1 p.m. J.T. Perez (2-2, 3.00) vs. Trey Cumbie (2-1, 2.29)
  • Game Two - Friday March 30 4 p.m. Nathan Kroger (0-1, 4.08) vs. Aaron Fletcher (4-0, 0.95 ERA)
  • Game Three - Saturday March 31 12 p.m. Cam Alldred (1-2, 5.12) vs. Ryan Randel (2-2, 5.40)

Who are the Houston Cougars?

A team with a top 25 pedigree, the Cougars are not only the defending American Athletic Conference champions but a contender to do it all again. Although they have fallen out of the national rankings this season, the Cougars are a respectable 16-9 overall and riding quite a hot streak. Although they lost 4-3 to Rice on Tuesday, they had won eight-straight before that, including a series sweep against Memphis last weekend.

With a strong rotation, the Cougars have found their success. Led by Aaron Fletcher, who has been astonishing, Houston has a team ERA of 2.88, which is third in the conference. Trey Cumbie is the Friday starter for the team, and he has thrown two of its three complete games. No other team in the league has even one. The bullpen has been solid as well, with Carter Henry (1.74 ERA, 20 23 innings) and Joey Pulido (1.71 ERA, 21 innings) the top reserve arms.

While the pitching has been top notch, the Cougars have not been as impressive with the bats. They are last in the AAC in home runs (10) and are slashing .261/.359/.350 as a team. Designated hitter and first baseman Joe Davis (.355/.429/.484) is the team’s best hitter, but third baseman Jarel Triolo (.354/.425/.475, nine steals) and outfielder and first baseman Lael Lockhart (.330/.451/.429) can swing it at an elite level as well. Anchored by those three, Houston’s lineup is extremely patient, ranking second in the AAC in walks (108).

Game One Breakdown

Two of the better pitchers in the AAC will square off in game one, as UC’s ace J.T. Perez duels with Cumbie. Perez appears to be on track for a stellar campaign, but he needs to bounce back from his last start when he allowed a season-high five runs over five innings while walking five. He has walked eight batters in his last 11 innings, but has matched that with 10 strikeouts.

Cumbie has been more consistently dominant, tossing 39 13 innings with a 2.23 ERA. He has thrown two complete game shutouts and struck out 51 batters. One of those donut collections came last Friday against Memphis when he allowed only three hits and a walk while striking out eight in a 2-0 victory.

We’ll get a real look at just how much better Manny Rodriguez and Kyle Mottice have gotten as hitters for the Bearcats in this one, but it lines up as a game in which the they will struggle to string hits together.

Game Two Breakdown

Things may get even more difficult in game two. While Cumbie is the Friday starter, junior lefthander Aaron Fletcher has actually been the most dominant of Houston’s starters. He is 4-0 with a 0.95 ERA, using precise location to induce weak contact. That means Nathan Kroger needs to be at the top of his game, which has been a struggle recently. He has allowed 10 runs over his last 3 23 innings, although only four of those were earned.

A matchup that will be particularly interesting to watch is when A.J. Bumpass comes up against Fletcher. Bumpass was one of the best position players for the Bearcats last season and is in the midst of resurrecting a slow start to the year. He had a six-game hitting streak going before an 0-for-2 performance last Sunday against Tulane. That hit streak boosted his numbers a bit (.234/.375/.481). He is also the team leader in home runs (four) and walks (13). How he deals with a lefty will be crucial to how the UC offense goes.

Game Three Breakdown

If Cam Alldred can just go ahead and dial up another outing like he had against Tulane, that would be just great. The junior lefty put together the finest start of his career in that one, tossing seven shutout innings while striking out nine. Alldred has not been nearly that effective overall, with a 5.12 ERA across 31 23 innings this season.

Ryan Randel is Houston’s third starter and he has been similarly plagued by below average results. He does have as many wins as Cumbie, but as we know, wins aren’t a great statistic to evaluate a pitcher. That is evident here, as Randel has a 5.40 ERA and only 22 strikeouts across 28 13 innings

Prediction Time

UC is going to struggle to score this weekend aside from maybe the Saturday finale. Even if the bats are subdued, the Bearcats still have a shot in game one, assuming Perez returns to normal. That isn’t the case for the whole weekend. Expect a 2-1 series loss.