Gloomy skies hovered overhead of the UC Baseball Stadium Wednesday night - literally and figuratively - as the University of Cincinnati baseball team saw little sunshine in their 13-9 under-motivated loss to Ball State.
Coming off a difficult Big East series in the City of Brotherly Love against Villanova and staring an imposing weekend series against West Virginia square in the face, the University of Cincinnati may have been looking past the hard-hitting Cardinal squad.
With the loss, their second straight and third defeat in their past four, the Bearcats drop to 30-18 on the season, and fail to move one game closer to approaching the school-record for wins in a season, 35.
Tonight's game was a chance for the Bearcats to improve upon their already lofty and unexpected win total. However, due to a slow start on the mound and a sluggish finish at the plate, the Bearcats unable to pull ahead in the end.
"From the third inning on, this was a well played game on both sides, but the difference was we couldn't overcome a poor pitching performance early," said Cincinnati skipper Brian Cleary.
Cleary is referring to the struggles of UC starting hurler Adam Calez, who struggled mightily from his opening warm-ups on (he threw a couple pitches to the backstop before the National Anthem). The 5-9 southpaw did not seem to "size up" well against the big bats swung by bigger men in the BSU lineup. Coming off a one-inning, two earned-run loss at Villanova, Calez responded by allowing career-high ten runs in an inning-plus of work. After allowing three runs in the opening inning, Calez responded by allowing each of the seven batters he faced in the second frame to reach base.
After walking the leadoff batter and allowing a pair of singles to the next two, Calez allowed the epitome of a "long-single" to backstop Mike Sullivan to plate the fourth Ball State run of the contest. Sullivan's booming shot off the fence in left-center field was followed by a towering blast over it, as 6-5 man-child first basemen, Brad Miller, belted a grand slam for his 17th jack of the season. Calez would proceed to allow two more singles to Cardinal hitters who would score off Jake Geglein pitches.
As Cleary was quick to note, after Calez exited the playing surface the UC squad seemed to rally and regroup, fighting back into the game, and giving them the time and opportunity needed.
"I thought we did a good job of getting back in the game, we just didn't pitch well enough in the beginning," said Cleary.
Reminding this Cleveland native of the '95 Cleveland Indians squad that seemed to come from behind just about every game, it seemed like this magical Bearcat offense seemed poised and ready to make another miraculous come-from-behind push for a victory.
After falling behind, 3-0, after only one inning of play, the Bearcats fired back, as they have done all season long. The OBP (on-base percentage) king, Muscenti (.489) led a makeshift UC lineup in search of new life off with a walk and would later move to third after a Harrison single and a throwing error. Then a Logan Parker single and the second of the Cardinal errors led to the first UC run. A sacrifice fly by Jack Nelson and a Hayes RBI-single against a lefty got the game back to even.
After showing glimpses of greatness in the first inning, the Bearcats continued their offensive teat in the third inning would, the last time UC really made a push at the Cardinals. During the inning, 10 Bearcats batted on the way to a six-run outburst. Jon DeLuca singled with one out and came around to score on a Brian Szarmach double to right. After Ryan Schmidt struck out Hayes, he walked Nick Maragas and yielded a single to Adam Yeager that loaded the bases. The 6-9 Adam Quinn quickly gave up an RBI single to Muscenti before seeing 5-6 Harrison yank a fastball down the right-field line for a grand slam (5) to cut the lead to three, 12-9.
However, that offense would have gone for naught had it not been for the success of the Bearcat ‘pen. With a slow start, the Bearcats were in need of going to the bullpen early. Marred by a lack of depth in the relief department all season long, it would have seemed like the Bearcats were going to throw in the towel early. However, due to four gutsy and unexpected performances they were able to battle tough for the duration.
Aside from Calez, the Bearcat hurlers were solid. Though all have earned the label of mid-week or mop-up guys during the course of the season, earning a chance to pitch in seemingly "un-winnable" situations, the combination of Geglein, Bryan Wood, Evan Sanfod and Matt Heber all pitched relatively well, allowing just two earned runs (three overall) in eight innings of work.
However, while the solid performances by these lightly-used Bearcat arms was welcomed by the Bearcat coaching staff, as this has been a team hindered by a lack of reliable arms to toss on the mound, it seemed like the rest of the team struggled to really get behind their pitchers. It did not appear that early pitching were not the only factor that led to the ‘Cat's third non-conference home defeat this season (13-3) – one loss came to Xavier (11-10) in a similar "sandwich" situation, as it seemed like they may have looked past the not-so-mighty Muskies.
Despite their three-inning scoring spree early in the contest, the Bearcats could not seem to get into an offensive flow during the middle innings, the spot in the game that usually sees the Bearcat bats come to live. While the Bearcat bats are normally aroused during the middle-to-late portion of the game, tonight's contest saw the ‘Cats neutered during that stretch by the Ball State relief corp. After nine hits during the early portion, the Bearcats were held to just two to close out the game. Seeing four quality pitchers, the Bearcats did manage to get on base, including three walks over the remaining six innings, but they just could not come through in the clutch. Overall, the Bearcats left nine runners on base and turned out to be very conservative on the base paths all night long.
When the Bearcats were not struggling to improve upon their RISP (runners in scoring position) numbers, they seemed to be busy putting undeserved Cardinal runners in that spot do so themselves.
While there were numerous rallies killed by Bearcat double-plays and a fantastic hose by Bearcat right fielder Harrison to nail a potential run at the pate, the defense was shaky to put it best. Thought the ‘Cards finished with more errors than the ‘Cats, three to one, UC saw numerous opportunities to thwart offensive attacks by their opponent go for naught. It was not so much "bad defense" – aside from the horrible routes run by Szarmach on a pair of fly balls – as it was not having that extra "oomph" to finish off plays. For instance, a sharp line drive hit up the middle that was unable to be "hoovered up" by Muscenti, a proverbial vacuum at second base. The most notable example came from arguably the Bearcats top defensive player. On a ball in the top half of the first that caromed off the speedy Hayes' glove for a two-out, run double and would lead to a third. If Hayes had the one extra inch it would have seen the Bearcats jump out to a three-run lead, instead of being put behind the eight ball for the rest of the game.
The Cardinals (29-18) are most definitely a quality team. They hit for power (especially at home), they have solid overall pitching (4.44 ERA), and the entire team can flash some leather (.976 fielding percentage). With that being said, this was a game they should have or at least could have won – it just did not seem like they wanted to. Sure it is easy to blame their slow start or the fact the team was forced to delay the start of the game for one hour in hopes of getting this seemingly insignificant game in before the clouds decided to unleash their liquid fury upon the Queen City one more time, but it may have been something more than that.
Were the ‘Cats "up" for the game? Were they caught calendar watching a little early, looking forward to a match-up with the most potent offense in the Big East, West Virginia? These are both questions that should be asked after tonight's effort and going into undoubtedly the most important stretch of the conference season but either way the fact remains the same: the Bearcats did not seem all that "motivated" to notch this midweek contest in their belt. Sluggish from the start, the Bearcats seemed to struggle with every aspect of the game during tonight's showdown. At least from my perspective, it seemed that it was perhaps the placement of this midweek game in midst of a crucial part of the conference season that led (at least in part) to the ‘Cats third loss in their last four games.
"Sure, I mean it would be naïve to think that this game or any midweek game means as much as a conference game at this juncture of the season," said Cleary. "This game will not have any impact on our postseason so in that sense it does not mean a whole lot…but you want to win every game, and I certainly think this was a game that we came to win."
It is quite possible that these mid-week games just do not mean as much to the Bearcats as the weekend conference games do. These games, except for confidence going into the weekend by having the chance to take a few extra swings in game situations or get some work for an under-used bullpen, offers little in terms of a team's postseason résumé at this point in the season. With this being said, it would make sense that players would have a difficult time finding the strength to make a late-inning push. This seemed to be just the case for the Bearcats on this game.
In the end, was it the case that UC simply did not could not get up for the contest? Well, it seems that it could be at least partially to blame. There is no doubt that with the great pressures facing them in recent days, the poor conditions for tonight's contest, and some of their own failures throughout the night could have seen the players head to the showers a littler early. Nevertheless, that does not mean the Bearcats did not try to win. The team never showed signs of packing it in and they fought to the end. The only thing missing was an urgency to win. Instead, what you had in replace was a chance to see Cincinnati tamper with their lineup in an effort to give a few tired bats a breath of new life and allow an undermanned bullpen the chance to get some work in late in the season, as the could prove important if the ‘Cats have designs on a postseason run.
The Bearcats will look to put an end to their current losing streak as Cincinnati freshman hurler Steve Blevins will look to pick up his freshman record-setting ninth victory of the season in the weekend series-opener against WVU from UC Baseball Stadium, Friday night at 8 pm. In addition, look for a possible shakeup in the Cincinnati rotation this weekend series. The "shakeup" is expected to occur on Saturday, where Nick Buscemi could take the mound for the ‘Cats, pushing freshman Dan Osterbrock back to closeout the weekend series – leaving the struggling Kyle Rapp as the odd man out. Look for more information in upcoming days.