The Cincinnati Bearcats won’t have much time to process their first loss in nearly two weeks as they must face the Creighton Bluejays in the Corvallis Regional of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday afternoon. Now that they have fallen short in a game during the regional, the Bearcats can’t afford another stumble. With one more loss they will be sent home. To win the regional, they’ll have to beat Creighton and then defeat the Michigan Wolverines later in the night on Sunday and again on Monday. Let’s take it one step at a time.
The Story So Far
The American Athletic Conference champion Bearcats (31-30) were riding a five-game winning streak when they collided with the Wolverines on Saturday night in the winner’s bracket of the regional. They had a 4-1 lead after five innings, but then they ran out of gas at the plate and the mound, ultimately falling in a 10-4 final. The setback was their first since losing to the Xavier Musketeers in the regular season finale.
Maybe Oregon State was the weakest team in the regional all along. Despite playing the hosts and No. 16 overall seed in the tournament on Saturday afternoon, the Bluejays claiming a 4-1 victory and sending the defending national champions home quickly. Creighton (39-12) won the Big East championship and has captured nine victories in its last 10 games overall.
The Bearcats found an excellent rhythm at the plate during the AAC tourney and in the first game of this regional, but they looked more like the team that struggled to score all season on Saturday. Jace Mercer and Eric Santiago combined to go 5-for-7 but the rest of the lineup had three hits in total. UC is slashing .259/.353/.370 as a team and usually lacks much in terms of power with only 34 home runs.
UC still could have won on Saturday if its pitching held. Starter David Orndorff was able to avoid much damage in the first five innings, allowing just one run. However, he surrendered a two-run home run in the top of the sixth and was taken out before he could get any outs in the frame. Things did not go better from there, with the Wolverines scoring 10 runs on 12 hits and seven walks for the entire game. UC has an ERA of 5.54 overall this season and with Orndorff making a start on Saturday, they will likely be without their most reliable starting pitcher for the rest of the regional.
The Bluejays were easily the best team in the Big East this season. They have won 39 games to this point and they had the league’s player of the year and pitcher of the year award winners in Jake Holton and Mitch Ragan. At the plate, they can score runs fairly effectively even if they’ve only managed four total in the first two games of the regional. Holton (.397/.492/.704) paces a lineup that is slashing .290/.393/.474 and features four players batting at least .300.
On the mound, the Bluejays are a bit less effective, with a team-wide ERA of 4.21, but that doesn’t mean they can’t shut down opposing offenses. They proved that on Saturday when Evan Johnson and John Sakowski combined to allow one run on four hits against the Beavers. Sakowski (2.17 ERA, 42 strikeouts in 45 2⁄3 innings) has held opponents to a .159 batting average and is the leader in the bullpen, which Creighton will need more than ever now that Ragan and Johnson have both started games already.
Players to Watch
Cincinnati - Jace Mercer, 2B
The junior second baseman has had an exemplary regional to this point, collecting six hits in seven at-bats. He is now batting .281 this season and is second on the team in stolen bases (20). The Bearcats need everyone in the lineup to produce and following Mercer’s example will go a long way in that regard.
Creighton - Jake Holton, 1B
Unlike Mercer, Holton has had a pretty pedestrian weekend, going 2-for-9 with four strikeouts in the first two games. However, he has 14 home runs this season and teams with right fielder Will Robertson (.310/..407/.581, 13 home runs) to give the Bluejays a powerful middle of the order.
The Bearcats are in trouble. Even though they have proven that they belong this weekend, they have exhausted their pitching staff over the last two games and now have to contend with a Creighton team that can hit, even if they haven’t done a great job of that during the regional. If UC’s offense doesn’t bounce back from the cold streak it went on during the last few innings against Michigan, this will be the last game of the year. Creighton 6 Cincinnati 3.