With a chance to both win their first American Athletic Conference championship and make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1974, the Cincinnati Bearcats will take on the UConn Huskies in a winner-take-all final of the AAC Tournament on Sunday afternoon in Clearwater, Florida.
The Story So Far
For those waiting for the other shoe to drop, it still hasn’t. The Bearcats (29-29) have won all three games they have played in this week’s tournament, doing so with uncharacteristically impressive hitting. They scored 10 runs to defeat the UCF Knights in the semifinals on Saturday, making for their second double-digit run total of the week but just their eighth of the year overall. For a team that was near the bottom of the league in most offensive categories all season, the Bearcats have found something that is working in Clearwater. Leading the way has been A.J. Bumpass, who has reached base in 11 of his 13 plate appearances this week, including a go-ahead two-run home run on Saturday.
UC’s bullpen deserves a great deal of credit as well. Yesterday, A.J. Kullman, Nick Murray and Korren Thompson combined to log 5 2⁄3 innings with seven strikeouts and only two runs allowed. Kullman and Murray should get the bulk of the credit, with Thompson securing just one out to close out the victory. However, the left-handed closer earned a seven-out save against Tulane on Thursday.
It is a bit less surprising that UConn has made it this far. Although they are the No. 4 seed in the tournament, the Huskies are 36-22 overall this season and were the runner-up in last year’s tournament. Their path to this year’s championship game was paved by a 4-3 win over Houston and back-to-back wins against Wichita State, including an 8-3 triumph on Saturday.
UConn will present a new challenge for the Bearcats, who have faced pretty solid offensive teams during its run. The Huskies can still hit, but their real strength is on the mound. They rank third in the AAC in ERA (3.92), with relievers Jacob Wallace (0.73 ERA, 56 strikeouts in 37 innings), C.J. Dandeneau (2.54 ERA, 61 strikeouts in 46 innings) and Caleb Wurster (2.77 ERA in 39 innings) providing stellar bullpen depth.
Recapping the Season Series
The Huskies were ranked No. 22 in the country when these teams met in early April for a three-game series. However, it was the Bearcats who ended up winning the weekend, taking two of three games. UC designated hitter Wyatt Stapp carried the offense that weekend, especially when he went 4-for-5 with a double and three RBI in a 10-4 victory during the series finale. Stapp has continued to be a reliable hitter for the Bearcats, and went 2-for-4 with a home run and two RBI in Saturday’s semifinals.
Players to Watch
Cincinnati - A.J. Bumpass, OF
Bumpass has been the answer for the last two games and there’s no reason to stop now. No team has proven that they can stop him from getting on base and producing runs during this tournament. If the Huskies are going to win, they’ll need to be the first.
UConn - Anthony Prato, SS
Prato is one of three all-conference first-team members from the Huskies and as the No. 2 batter in the lineup, he will go a long way in determining how successful the Huskies are at putting runs on the board. He drove in a run as part of a of a five-run second inning Saturday and bats before second baseman Michael Woodworth, who leads the team in batting average (.323) and ranks second in home runs (five) and third in RBI (36). Like I said, its not like the Huskies can’t hit.
Both the Bearcats and the Huskies took care of business on Saturday, with neither needing more than one game to secure their spot in Sunday’s championship matchup. The Bearcats have been hitting at an incredible pace, but the Huskies could have the pitching to slow them down, regardless of whether ace Mason Feole, who pitched on Thursday, takes the mound. Luckily for the Bearcats, thanks to a smooth trip through the first round three games, they have been able to keep their own ace rested, which means David Orndorff could be given the chance to finish out a championship run. In just one game, any advantage could be the difference and the Bearcats might have one there. Cincinnati 6 UConn 5