However, over the past two days against one of the premiere teams in the nation, St. John's (they are ranked in the top- 15 nationally in both offense and pitching), the Bearcats have seemingly resurrected much of the "faith" in their team with a pair of improbable victories, including last night's amazing 7-5 come-from-behind win.
"Our guys showed up very focused and ready to play and I am extremely proud of their effort," UC head coach Brian Cleary stated. "I think we have pitched pretty well over the last two days and really strung together some good performances today. I am most pleased with the way we hung in and found a way to win."
After getting to the Red Storm bullpen in the bottom of the seventh inning to regain the lead, the University of Cincinnati saw to spectacular defensive plays in the top-half of the ninth clinch their second victory in as many days. With one out and nobody on base, senior "fill-in" closer Jack Nelson got himself into trouble, allowing a single to St. John's Jeff Grantham. Sam DeLuca (no relation to UC's Jon), who handles the bat as well as any player in the nation (13 strikeouts in 213 plate appearances), sent a screaming double into the right field corner, which could have seen Grantham score had it not been for a sliding stop by Adam Calez to keep the ball from getting stuck against the wall. Torn at the crossroads, the Bearcat skipper decided to take the road less traveled, deciding to walk the potential go-ahead-run in order to set up the lefty-lefty match-up and the double play against the Red Storm's hottest hitter, Anthony Smith who had been 3-of-4 prior to his ninth inning at-bat. Smith appeared to slap Cleary's strategy (and the Bearcat lead) back up the middle and into centerfield, only to see his shot grabbed, tossed and turned into a game-ending 6-4-3 double play initiated by Josh Harrison, who turned another fantastic play in the fifth, ranging far to his right to steal away a would-be base hit.
With the victory, Cincinnati (32-23, 12-13 Big East) guaranteeing themselves at worst the seventh seed in the upcoming Big East Tournament, avoiding an all-important first round meeting against conference powerhouse Notre Dame. As of now, the Bearcats currently hold onto sixth place in the Big East, which would set them up with a first round matching against regional rival and cross-conference foe, Louisville, against who the ‘Cats are 2-1 this season. With a loss and a Rutgers victory, UC would finish in the seventh positioning and would play the talented pitching staff of UConn in the opening game. Cincy is 0-3 against the Huskies this season.
The late-inning defensive heroics for the Bearcats would have gone for naught, had it not been for their ability swing the bats in pressure situations. An ally of the team all season long (especially at home) but a foe of the team in recent weeks, the ability to come through in the clutch with runners on base in the late innings was ultimately the difference in the game for the UC. Facing the fact that the Red Storm had been an amazing 29-1 when leading after seven innings this seasons prior to Saturday night, the Bearcats once again scoffed at convention and decided that the seventh inning would be the frame that the ‘Cats would go on the prowl for the second victory in as many days.
Facing Justin Gutsie and Rich Armento, two of the top arms out of the St. John's bullpen, UC would explode for three runs in the frame to erase their one-run deficit. Cincinnati's Adam Calez and Adam Yeager started the inning off with consecutive singles and would later score when "do-it-all" Harrison pulled the SJU offering just inside the left field line for a double. After an intentional walk to Logan Parker and seeing Gutsie lifted in favor of Armento, a UC double steal set up a game-winning sacrifice fly by Nelson, giving him the rare distinction of both winning the game (at the plate) and earning the save.
While only in need of one victory in their final three games or a host of help from rival teams in the conference to ensure themselves one of the final two spots in the upcoming Big East Tournament (May 23-27 in Clearwater, Florida), the recent additions made to the ‘Cats postseason résumé will help breathe new faith into a team that has done its part to erase most of the good established over the course of the 53 games played prior to this weekend. With their recent collective struggles at the plate, an injury to their starting to second basemen Mark Muscenti (who will return for Big East play) and an apparent loss of all the momentum they had helped to build this season left most believing the Bearcat chances for doing much in the double-elimination event were slim (if they made it). However, this weekend's heroics may help to re-establish some of the momentum and high hopes of not only the UC faithful but possibly a few of those within the Cincinnati locker room as well.
Even though UC is now officially in the term and the team has helped to reestablish much of the good karma that has lead them to the fourth-most wins in school history, there is still much work to be done this weekend. Saturday will be crucial for the Bearcats, as they look to maintain the positive momentum that they have helped to construct these past two days. Not only will the Bearcats be short in available arms in the series finale (Bryan Wood will make the start) but also UC will have the added pressure of having to deal with a "fat cat" that has some of their cheese stolen from them. Playing tough and getting solid efforts in game three will be vital for the ‘Cats – though, take two of three from the third-ranked team in the conference is not half bad.
With that being said, the Bearcats will not have to look far for motivation on Saturday, as it marks the final home game of the University of Cincinnati seniors. With friend's, family, and numerous long-time supporters of the Bearcat team and players in the stands, and knowing this is the last time these players will ever compete at UC Baseball Stadium will most likely lead the team to a collective adrenaline rush.