The long wait is over. No, not since the Cincinnati Bearcats last played a baseball game. It’s been less than a week since they did that and won the American Athletic Conference championship. The wait I am referring to is the one the UC baseball program has endured between NCAA Tournament appearances. When they last played in the event in 1974, who would have guessed that they would not return until 2019?
That return will be far from a welcoming one, however. The Bearcats drew a spot in the Corvallis Regional and their first opponent will be the hosting Oregon State Beavers, who are otherwise known as the defending national champions. This is just the first game of the double-elimination regional and will set the stage for the the rest of the weekend. Here’s a look at the matchup.
The Story So Far
What a strange and wonderful year it has been for the Bearcats. In early March, making the NCAA Tournament would have seemed impossible, yet here they stand, ready to compete. A slow start to the campaign was overshadowed to a degree by effective play against the AAC. The Bearcats finished second in the league at 13-11 and that earned them the No. 2 seed in last week’s conference tournament. In that event, they amassed 51 runs in four games, culminating in a 22-5 rout of the UConn Huskies in Sunday’s title game. Entering this weekend, they are 30-29 overall, which marks their first season with 30 wins since 2011 and even that team didn’t make the NCAA Tournament.
Getting to this part of the postseason is pretty common for Oregon State. This is the 19th time the Beavers have taken part in the NCAA Tournament and the 10th time they’ve made it in the last 11 years. They have reached the College World Series in each of the last two years as well, winning it all for the third time in 2018. This year’s team has gone 36-18-1, which is far below the 55-12-1 mark they set last season, but was still enough to earn them the No. 16 overall seed in this tournament.
If we just lived in a world where the Bearcats hit like they did in the AAC tourney, we would be discussing a team with an unmatched offense. As it stands, even after they slashed .390/.479/.597 in those four games, they are still the third-lowest scoring team in the AAC this season and are hitting a measly .257 overall with 137 extra-base hits, including 33 home runs. What the Bearcats lack in power, they make up for with speed. They have stolen 87 bases as a team and two different players have at least 20 thefts (Joey Wiemer and Jace Mercer) while Jeremy Johnson has 19.
Of course, the Bearcats still need some players to hit in order to take advantage of their willingness to run. Right fielder A.J. Bumpass (team-high .847 OPS), who had a fantastic AAC tourney, shortstop Joey Bellini (team-high .302 batting average) and designated hitter Wyatt Stapp (.297/.367/.374) are the most effective batters, although a number of Bearcats stepped up on the road to UC’s league title.
UC’s pitching has not had the type of breakout that the lineup had, but it has reliable arms in the bullpen in closer Korren Thompson (3.86 ERA, 12 saves), Nathan Moore (3.72 ERA, 36 strikeouts in 38 2⁄3 innings) and A.J. Kullman (4.70 ERA, team-high 67 innings) while David Orndorff (5-2, 4.79 ERA) has been the most reliable starter in the rotation.
As we learned in our discussion with Joe Londergan of Building the Dam, the Beavers had the makings of an unstoppable pitching staff this season, but injuries have really held them back. Despite this, they still sport a spectacular 2.98 ERA as a team with shutdown reliever Jake Mulholland (1.81 ERA in 44 2⁄3 innings) holding down later innings and starter Bryce Fehmel (7-3, 3.34 ERA) an anchor for the staff with a team-high 94 1⁄3 innings pitched.
On the surface, Oregon State’s offensive production has not been leagues ahead of UC’s, as the Beavers are batting .264 with 314 runs scored this season. However, the Beavers are led by Adley Rutschman, who is slashing .416/.580/.765 with 17 home runs this season. Add in the efforts of Beau Philip (.322/.370/.503) and Alex McGarry (.291/.404/.486), and the Beavers have a solid core to work with.
Players to Watch
Cincinnati - Clayton Colvin, SP
Although Orndorff has been UC’s best starter this season, Colvin is scheduled to start on Friday night. Through 47 2⁄3 innings, the senior right-hander has posted 48 strikeouts, but his ERA sits at 5.48. The Bearcats are going to have enough trouble as it is scoring off of Oregon State’s pitching staff, so getting a solid start from Colvin could go a long way in keeping this one close.
Oregon State - Adley Rutschman, C
Rutschman is one of the top prospects in the MLB Draft and must be running out of room for all the awards he is winning. If he Bearcats are going to complete an upset, they have to find a way to keep him from getting on base.
There is a lot going against the Bearcats in this game. They are playing the defending national champions on the road. Even though they were swinging the bats as well as any team in the country last weekend, there has been plenty of time for Oregon State to scout the lineup and prepare. UC just recently smashed expectations in the AAC tourney and due to the double-elimination format of this tournament, Friday isn’t a must-win by the strictest of definitions, but this feels like too large a hill to climb. Oregon State 8 Cincinnati 4.