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Series Preview: Cincinnati Bearcats at UCF Knights

Its time for the Bearcats to make a statement. Whether that statement is good or bad is up to them.

MLB: Spring Training-Toronto Blue Jays at Philadelphia Phillies Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

American Athletic Conference play is back on the menu for the Cincinnati Bearcats, who will travel south to take on the UCF Knights in a three-game set this weekend.

General Info

Matchup: Cincinnati Bearcats (16-15, 6-3 AAC) at UCF Knights (23-11, 4-5 AAC)

Location: John Euliano Park Orlando, Florida

Series History: With a 4-9 record all-time against UCF, the Bearcats clearly haven’t had the upper hand, especially as they’ve lost regular season series to the Knights in the last two years.

Times/Probable Starters

  • Game One - Friday April 13 6:30 p.m. J.T. Perez (3-3, 2.50) vs. Joe Sheridan (3-1, 1.67)
  • Game Two - Saturday April 14 6:30 p.m. Nathan Kroger (1-1, 3.02) vs. Chris Williams (3-1, 1.81 ERA)
  • Game Three - Sunday April 15 12 p.m. Cam Alldred (3-2, 3.95) vs. J.J. Montgomery (3-2, 3.16)

Who are the UCF Knights?

They are the second-best team in Florida among AAC teams, but that doesn’t mean they are a bad squad. The Knights can hit fairly well and have a pretty nasty pitching staff. They rank second in the conference in runs scored (214) and third in batting average (.286), while leading the way in on-base percentage (.394). Very much a station-to-station group of hitters, the Knights are seventh in the league in doubles, last in triples and fourth in home runs, but a league-high 166 walks and the second-most hits (327) have given them plenty of chances to put runs on the board, which they have done consistently.

First baseman Rylan Thomas is a current frontrunner for player of the year honors because of his powerful bat and patient approach. The 5’11”, 235-pound sophomore was a freshman All-American last season and he has shown no hint of a sophomore slump, slashing .422/.519/.672 with eight home runs and 39 RBI. You are more likely to put him on base than get him out. That’s not something you see everyday. He not only leads the conference in batting average and on-base percentage, he also tops it in runs scored, hits, RBI and total bases.

But Thomas isn’t the only guy who can hit, work a walk and punish opposing hurlers. Outfielder Tyler Osik (.316/.398/.474) has launched five home runs while second baseman Matthew Mika (.336/.404/.440) and outfielder Ray Alejo (.307/.366/.364) have accounted for 37 stolen bases combined.

On the hill, the Knights have a 3.05 team ERA with more shutouts (eight) than any other team in the league. The strength of the staff comes in the starting rotation, which is positively lethal on the weekends when Joe Sheridan (3-1, 1.67 ERA), Chris Williams (3-1, 1.81 ERA) and J.J. Montgomery (3-2, 3.16 ERA) take to the hill.

Despite all that statistical goodness, the Knights have fallen a little flat in the first few forays in AAC action. They are just 4-5 in conference play, which has them tied with Tulane for the second-worst mark in the standings. However, at 23-11, they are tied with Wichita State for the second-most overall wins and just beat Miami (Florida) 4-0 on Wednesday.

While we’re on the subject of weak points, UCF has not been the best defensive team, ranking last in the conference in fielding percentage (.964) and errors (46). Its tough to think of that as an advantage for UC, however, since the Bearcats are just one spot ahead of UCF in each category.

Game One Breakdown

Sheridan got roughed up last Friday against UConn and it was entirely because of a lack of command. He allowed four runs in four innings while walking six batters. He has walked a total of 19 in the last five games after having only two in his first two starts. The lefty is still a preseason all-conference team member and excellent at stopping runs from scoring, but if the Bearcats can be patient, they might have a better shot. Kyle Mottice (.320/.417/.418) has the best chance of setting the tone, and not just because he is the leadoff hitter. The second baseman leads the team in on-base percentage and walks (17).

The Bearcats have been given a great gift this season with the return of J.T. Perez and his ability to eat up innings. He has thrown at least seven innings in the last two starts and only allowed two earned runs. He also has been striking out a few more batters than he did a year ago, while being the definition of an ace. He has already reached 50 innings thrown this season, while allowing a .236 batting average to opposing teams.

Game Two Breakdown

Getting to go from Perez to Nathan Kroger in the rotation has been a a major reason the Bearcats are currently tied for first in the AAC. The right-handed sophomore was used in a number of roles last season, but he has cemented himself as the No. 2 starter and a guy with a bright future. He has a 3.02 ERA in 41 23 innings across eight games (seven starts). He had his best outing of the season last Saturday against Memphis, allowing just one run across a career-high seven winnings while striking out seven, which was also a career-high. With only eight walks allowed on the campaign, Kroger’s ability to pound the strike zone could pay off against UCF’s patient approach.

Kroger will have to be at the top of his game because UCF also has a stellar second day starter. Chris Williams throws a lot of innings and doesn’t give up many runs. He actually leads the team in innings (49 2/3) and has struck out 45 batters in that time while posting a 1.81 ERA. He did surrender five earned runs in his last start, but before that he had allowed two combined in his previous six.

Game Three Breakdown

If there is one starter who is most at risk this weekend based on UCF’s offensive makeup, its Cam Alldred. That may seem obvious, since he is the No. 3 starter, but he is also the pitcher who has allowed the most walks on the season (17). On the flip side, he has also struck out 43 batters in 43 13 innings and has allowed just one earned run in his last three starts. Also, and this isn’t specific to Sunday, the Bearcats need Jarod Yoakam to be at his best. He’s pitched in 16 games and walked 11 batters and just got lit up for three runs against Miami (Ohio) in the Joe Nuxhall Classic final.

JJ Montgomery is the best strikeout pitcher on UCF’s staff and he’ll be throwing on Sunday. He has 46 strikeouts in only 37 innings, while posting a perfectly respectable 3.16 ERA. Of the three UCF starters, he was the best against UConn last weekend, allowing just one run while fanning seven in six innings.

Prediction Time!

If UC is for real, and a lot of the underlying statistics indicate otherwise, it has to show it this series. Both teams have pretty good staffs, so there could be some low scoring affairs, but the Bearcats have yet to face an offensive team like the Knights or a batter like Thomas. Maybe they’ll steal one, but the hosting Knights will take the series. (Feel free to put this on your bulletin board and use it as motivation, Bearcats. I will happily take the roasting on Twitter later).