TAMPA — The University of South Florida used four solo home runs on Saturday to defeat the Cincinnati Bearcats 4-2 and avoid a series sweep at the USF Baseball Stadium this weekend. Luke Borders led the way with two long balls. Kevin Merrell and Joe Genord each added one.
Peter Strzelecki started for the Bulls and pitched 4 1/3 innings before leaving the game with a mild groin strain, giving up two runs on five hits with four strikeouts.
Mark Savarese and Joe Cavallaro tossed the final 4 2/3 innings and and allowed just one hit between them.
On Friday night, the Bulls lost 3-2 in 10 innings to the Bearcats and started the weekend with a 9-3 loss on Thursday.
The Bulls are now 29-7 overall, and 5-4 in American Conference action. They will travel to Jacksonville on Wednesday to face North Florida in a midweek matchup and then spend the weekend in Memphis to take on the Tigers in another tough American Conference series.
The Bulls’ calling card all season has been pitching and defense. An added bonus was a team that came into the series hitting .317 as a team. Being effective in two of those three categories will keep the team in most games. On Friday night, they were 0 for 3. USF head coach Mark Kingston called it an “atypical” performance and it was. The Bulls committed five errors and had a couple other mental errors that contributed to the loss.
Five of the nine runs were earned. Phoenix Sanders gave up five runs (three earned) and bullpen stalwart Joe Cavallaro surrendered two in one inning of work. The Bulls offense added seven hits against what essentially was a “staff” pitching game for Cinncinnati. To be fair, Sanders was pitching to a tight strike zone all night and one fewer day of rest. If you think that does not matter, take a look around at the scores nationally for Thursday night.
USF is 29-7. Four of those losses were by one run, two others by two runs. This one got away and I put it in the proverbial “that’s baseball” column.
Friday night, the Bulls re-established themselves defensively, and got good pitching from Shane McClanahan, Ryan Valdes, and Andrew Perez. However, it became clear Cincinnati head coach Ty Neal had a plan for Bulls hitters.
“They played well. They have a game plan. They have guys that throw mid 80’s that sink the ball hard and rely on their defense to make the plays behind them, and they did that tonight” said Kingston afterwards. “We need to do a better job of not letting the at-bats get so dictated that we ground out as much as we did tonight.”
The Bearcats defensively lead the American Conference with a .983 fielding percentage, with South Florida a couple of ticks behind at .981. Shortstop Manny Rodriguez is as athletic an infielder as you will see, so good in fact, that he is the kind of player you watch take infield. He is that good. Ryan Noda at first base is a big slick fielder himself. Was it a difference in this series?
Maybe, but still the opportunity to win the game was there.
Andrew Perez gave up what would be the winning run in the 10th on a sacrifice fly ball to center field. Bulls center fielder Garrett Zech made a throw to home, Noda slid around the tag, and was ruled safe for a 3-2 Bearcats lead.
USF battled back on the home half of the inning. Luke Borders came to bat with two outs and drove a ball to the gap in left-center. Coco Montes was held up at third by third base coach Chris Cates, giving Joe Genord a chance with two runners in scoring position. A fly ball to center ended the game.
Lets get this out of the way.
I watched the play unfold from the Donaldson Deck at the stadium and many of those fans in attendance wondered aloud why Montes was not waved around to try and score. I had that thought myself, briefly.
Afterwards I asked Coach Cates if he thought about sending him.
“I always think about sending them, but with your clean-up hitter coming up, you give him a chance,” said Cates.
Genord is one of the best hitters on the team, also one of the hottest hitters on the team. It was good call on Cates’ part made in a split second. The rest of us get the benefit of hindsight.
Saturday’s game turned out to be another close one. USF found places that did not have Bearcat defenders, and that was over the outfield wall. Still, the Bulls could muster just six hits in the game, four of them just happened to be home runs.
“Good day for us but we need to play better than that,” said Kingston.
And Kingston is right.
Far to0 may times this weekend, Bulls pitchers would grind through a 15 or 20-pitch inning, and the aggressive nature of the Bulls hitters would give Bearcats pitching quick outs, as Kingston said, dictating the at-bats.
A note about rankings
Through the first 36 games, the Bulls are 29-7. Raise your hand if that’s where you thought they would be at this point in the season. I’ll wait.
Disclaimer: I had them at 33 wins going into the conference tournament this year.
I get asked many times each week questions about USF being ranked. Is USF going to be ranked this week? Why aren’t the Bulls ranked?
I also correspond each week with other national writers about those rankings , many of whom think the Bulls are a very good team. Perfect Game has them ranked #25 this week, even after a series loss to Cinncinnati, but let me share some of the responses I get from those who compile their rankings.
“They have to play well in AAC. Their nonconference SOS could be a real problem for an at large bid. Heavy home schedule.”
The non-conference SOS is currently #156 nationally.
Here is the number to watch going forward, RPI. The Bulls currently rank 30 in RPI.
The good news is that with 20 regular season games left, the team can control where it finishes the season. No one can say the schedule is weak going forward and 12 of those games are on the road, including their last eight.
The American Conference is ranked the 5th toughest in the country as of now and it appears teams within the conference will beat up on each other all year. Finishing on the north side of .500 for conference play will go a long way towards getting South Florida where they want to be, and the solid RPI would follow.
The American look to be a three or four-team league for regionals. Top three takes a lot of “what ifs” out of the decision.
In a perfect world, USF wins the American Conference tournament and all this discussion is moot, but watch the RPI.