This is a big one. The Cincinnati Bearcats are having one of their best seasons in quite a while but to really make the next step, they have to consistently beat good teams. They made progress on that front last weekend, taking two out of three from Wichita State, but then they got crushed 24-6 by Louisville this week, souring the sweet taste of Tuesday’s 6-1 win over Xavier.
A new challenger approaches now, as the Bearcats face No. 10 East Carolina in a three-game set this weekend. The two teams are both grouped tightly together near the top of the American Athletic Conference standings, and with only four games left on the schedule after this weekend, the Bearcats need every win they can get.
Matchup: Cincinnati Bearcats (25-22, 10-8 AAC) at East Carolina Pirates (35-12, 11-7 AAC)
Location: Lewis Field at Clark-LeClair Stadium Greenville, North Carolina
Series History: ECU took two out of three from Cincinnati last season, improving to 14-5-2 all-time against the Bearcats.
- Game One - Friday May 11 7 p.m. J.T. Perez (6-3, 2.41) vs. Chris Holba (9-0, 1.98)
- Game Two - Saturday May 12 3 p.m. Nathan Kroger (1-3, 4.68) vs. Alec Burleson (3-1, 2.27)
- Game Three - Sunday May 13 11:30 a.m. Cam Alldred (5-2, 3.88) vs. TBD
Who are the East Carolina Pirates?
If you asked the national rankers of college baseball teams, the Pirates are the 10th-best squad in the country. That’s a pretty reasonable thing to say about a team that is 35-12 overall, riding a five-game winning streak and +121 run differential. However, they are only 11-7 in conference play, which is perfectly fine, but only good enough for a second-place tie in the AAC. It also puts them just a game ahead of Cincinnati.
ECU is a team that UC has seemingly emulated to a degree this year, as the Pirates are built on a very strong pitching staff. With the lowest team ERA in the AAC (3.12), they have limited runs better than anyone. Chris Holba (9-0, 1.98 ERA) has been one of the top aces around, with 63 2⁄3 innings of sparkling work to his credit. Alec Burleson (3-1, 2.27 ERA) is another pitcher who has worked well both in the rotation and out of the bullpen. He is averaging pretty much exactly one strikeout per inning and is slated for the start on Saturday. Burleson may be starting this weekend, but he also has been a part of a dominant bullpen, with Davis Kirkpattrick (0.99 ERA), Gavin Williams (1.35 ERA), Tyler Smith (1.85 ERA), Zach Barnes (1.93 ERA) and Ryan Ross (2.29 ERA) all guys that can get outs in big spots.
But its not just the pitching. The Pirates are also an excellent defensive team, leading the AAC in fielding percentage (.978).
As if all that pitching and defense wasn’t enough, the Pirates also feature the best hitter in the conference in Bryant Packard. The sophomore outfielder leads the AAC in batting average (.405) and slugging percentage (.684) while ranking third in on-base percentage (.464). He is on a 25-game hitting streak and has launched 11 home runs this year. Packard is part of a very strong outfield, with Dwanya Williams-Sutton (.357/.486/.583) able to hit, get on base and run the basepaths (13 stolen bases). Infielder Brady Lloyd (.327/.392/.420) doesn’t have a ton of pop, but he makes contact frequently and can snag a bag or two as well (13 stolen bases).
Game One Breakdown
The Bearcats have faced plenty of talented pitchers this season and Holba is the next in line. He might be the best considering his sub-2.00 ERA and, even if it isn’t exactly the best way to evaluate a pitcher, his 9-0 record speaks to how good the Pirates are when he is on the mound. However, he struggled in his last outing, allowing four earned runs (five total) in only three innings last week against Tulane.
With Holba on the mound, this should be an excellent pitching matchup because J.T. Perez is having himself a year. UC’s ace leads the team in innings pitched (78 1/3) and his 2.41 ERA is the best of anyone on the team that has thrown at least 15 innings. He helped UC take a series away from Wichita State last weekend by throwing seven innings of one-run ball. The Bearcats could really use a long outing from Perez. Even though they’ve had a day off since Wednesday’s matchup against Louisville, they had to use seven pitchers in that one, including Jarod Yoakam, who had an uncharacteristically poor outing against the Cardinals, allowing eight runs (seven earned) in just 1 2⁄3 innings.
Game Two Breakdown
Scott Googins will stick with Nathan Kroger as UC’s Saturday starter even though the right-hander has been having some trouble of late. After allowing three earned runs in only three innings last week, he has let up 16 runs in his last four starts (16 innings). Opponents are hitting .291 against Kroger and he has only 39 strikeouts in 57 2⁄3 innings.
Burleson is a multi-talented player, as he has hit .241/.304/.253 in 83 at-bats and also logged 35 2/3 strong innings on the mound. He was very good against Tulane last week, pitching a season-high 7 1⁄3 innings while striking out seven batters and allowing three earned runs.
To get to Burleson, Holba and any of the Pirates’ pitchers, Eric Santiago (.288/.336/.407) and Treg Haberkorn (.276/.403/.428) need to continue their recent hot streaks.
Game Three Breakdown
Cam Alldred? More like Kam Alldred. You know, because of all the strikeouts. Wow. That was terrible. I’m sorry. Anyway, bad jokes aside, Alldred has fanned 72 batters in 67 1⁄3 innings. His best outing of the year came last week against Wichita State when he struck out 10 batters in seven innings while allowing just one run. He has thrown at least seven innings in back-to-back games and three times in his last seven contests.
While East Carolina hasn’t announced its starter for Sunday, the Bearcats should expect another challenge. Smith started last Sunday and earned his seventh win on the back of five innings of one-run ball.
The Bearcats will be in a better spot than they were last week against Wichita State because Manny Rodriguez is seemingly back. He missed the Wichita State series, but returned to go 0-for-2 against Louisville, although Cole Murphy pinch-hit for him in the eighth inning (and hit a solo home run for what its worth). If all hands are on deck, the Bearcats can compete, but its going to be exceedingly difficult to win multiple games this weekend, let alone one. Optimistically, I’m going to say the Beacats will take one (probably Perez’s start).