It is correct to say the Cincinnati Bearcats have had a strong first season under new head coach Scott Googins. They worked their way to a 28-26 overall record, including a 12-12 mark in American Athletic Conference play. Success at Marge Schott Stadium was the driving force, as the Bearcats went 18-11 at home. The team also featured some star power, with staff ace J.T. Perez and power-hitting shortstop Manny Rodriguez both earning all-league first team honors while Sunday starter Cam Alldred was put on the second team.
None of that matters anymore. That’s because on Wednesday the Bearcats will play their first game of the AAC Tournament, entering as the No. 6 seed against the No. 3 seed UConn Huskies. The tourney already got going a bit yesterday, as No. 4 East Carolina topped No. 5 UCF and No. 8 seed Tulane upset No. 1 Houston. Day two will be even busier, with the schedule adjusted so that the Bearcats will play UConn at 12:30 and then another opponent again right after no matter the outcome. Since this is a double-elimination tournament, that means UC could either be advancing or going home entirely by the time you sit down for dinner.
If UC hopes to advance in game one, it will need to take down a very strong team out of UConn. The Huskies have a recent history of success in the AAC tourney, having won the whole thing two years ago and fallen in the semifinals a year ago. They are poised for another strong run this season following a regular season in which they went 32-18-1 and 14-10 against the rest of the league. They have been forged in the fire of playing away from home, with a 22-13 mark on the road and only a 10-5-1 record at home.
UC lost the lone series of the season against UConn this year, winning a 1-0 pitching duel on April 20 and then falling in closely contested and more offensively successful bouts later in the weekend. UConn is not a team with much power, having hit only 34 home runs as a team, but outfielder Isaac Feldstein is a threat to go yard after he hit 13 home runs in the regular season and slugged .579. Catcher Zac Susi (.330/.401/.401) is an on-base machine and an excellent hitter. On the pitching side, Mason Feole (8-1, 2.49 ERA, 103 strikeouts in 86 2⁄3 innings) is the Friday starter and P.J. Poulin (3.32 ERA, 15 saves, 52 strikeouts in 40 2⁄3 innings) is pretty savvy when it comes to closing a game down.
Don’t forget that the Bearcats have talent as well. In the first meeting this season, Perez out-dueled Feole, throwing a six-hit shutout in which he struck out 10. Feole countered with 14 punchouts but a home run from Rodriguez was enough to win the game for UC. Rodriguez has made a habit of sending the ball over the fence, with 12 home runs on the season and a .598 slugging percentage. He enters this tournament on a seven-game hitting streak.
The hottest bat in the lineup right now belongs to leadoff hitter and second baseman Kyle Mottice. After going 10-for-13 last weekend against USF, Mottice upped his team-leading batting average to .330 and his on-base percentage to .433. He puts the ball in play quite often, with only 32 strikeouts on the season as he finished among the top 10 players in the league in batting average and OBP. Mottice is also a magician on the base paths, with 19 steals in 22 attempts. He and Rodriguez partner well on defense, with the Bearcats the best double play turning team in the country.
If the Bearcats win against UConn, they will face the winner between No. 2 USF and No. 7 Wichita State. That game will take place this morning.
The Bulls are nationally ranked and own the same record as UConn overall. UC just faced them last weekend and dropped two out of three. Third baseman David Villar (.380 batting average, .579 slugging, 13 home runs) was the lone first-team selection for them.
As for Wichita State, this is its first season in the AAC and it was a good one, at least overall. The Shockers finished at 34-19-1 but had a losing record in league play (9-14-1) mainly because they played pretty meh baseball on the road (11-11). UC actually didn’t need homefield advantage to win the season series against the Shockers, taking two out of three from them in Wichita earlier this month. Catcher Gunnar Troutwine (.318 batting average, .532 slugging), third baseman Alec Bohm (.332, .616, 15 home runs) and Luke Ritter (.341, .493) lead one of the league’s most potent offenses.
After today, the Bearcats will continue on a more diverging path that we can’t really predict entirely. If all goes according to plan, they will win twice and then be set for a Saturday afternoon matchup in the semifinals. If they split today’s games, then they’ll have to play on Friday to get a shot on Saturday. If they lose both games today, then the season will be over. We’ll know what path they’ll set out on later this evening.