Cincinnati had lost 17 straight conference postseason games, so to win their opener at last week’s American Athletic Conference tournament was a big deal.
But that was just the start of the Bearcats’ history being made.
They continued breaking down walls and pounding their opponents to the tune of 51 runs in four games and a tournament championship, resulting in the program’s first NCAA postseason appearance in 45 years.
That brought Cincinnati (30-29) out West for the Corvallis Regional, where the fourth-seeded Bearcats will play top-seeded Oregon State (36-18-1) in their first game at the four-team, double-elimination tournament at 7 p.m. Friday at Goss Stadium.
Senior outfielder AJ Bumpass, the most outstanding player of the AAC tournament, says the atmosphere around his team has been “pretty loose” since Cincinnati defeated Connecticut 22-5 in Sunday’s championship game in Clearwater, Florida.
“We’ve been having fun with each other and enjoying this moment,” Bumpass said. “We’re just trying to soak it all in.”
The Bearcats are glad to still be playing and making history, but they aren’t ready to be done yet. They’re ready to raise the bar, continue to prove themselves and gain respect for their program.
Cincinnati avoided the happy-to-be-here mentality in its conference tournament. The Bearcats got past Memphis 11-6 for the program’s first postseason win since 2008.
That got the motor going, with wins against Tulane (8-6), Central Florida (10-6) and UConn to follow.
Scott Googins, Cincinnati’s second-year head coach, says his players are swinging bats with confidence and playing fearlessly.
“I saw this a lot last fall. I didn’t see it earlier in the spring and during the season,” he said. “But our guys are really believing in themselves. Not only themselves but their teammates. They see the light and they’re just playing.”
The 16-hour bus ride home from Clearwater was made more manageable knowing the Bearcats would be appearing somewhere on the NCAA bracket after moving their season’s finish line back.
Cincinnati, seeded second in the conference tournament, had no players named to the all-AAC first or second teams.
The Bearcats are led on offense by Bumpass (.280, seven home runs, 41 RBIs), sophomore infielder Wyatt Stapp (.297, three home runs, 35 RBIs), junior infielder Joey Bellini (.305, two home runs, 26 RBIs) and sophomore outfielder Joey Wiener (six home runs, 27 RBIs).
Bumpass is the AAC career leader in triples with 14.
The Bearcats have three players with 19 or more stolen bases, including Wiemer’s team-high 21.
“We’ll see what happens. Whatever presents itself. We do a lot of work stealing bases, but it’s not like as soon as we get on we’re going to steal,” Googins said. “It’s got to be opportunistic, there’s got to be situations and sometimes it’s with the pitcher.”
Cincinnati is well aware of both the arm and bat of Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman, the Pac-12 and Collegiate Baseball national player of the year.
When asked how his team would approach Rutschman in the batter’s box, Googins held up four fingers, denoting a base on balls.
“You think I’m joking. He’s not going to beat us. He’s a great player. He might get frustrated but to me we’re going to be smart with him,” the coach said. “That’s an unbelievable bat, an unbelievable player, so we’re going to be smart with him.”
Googins said his team will still pitch to Rutschman, but given the situation a free base might be awarded.
Senior right-hander AJ Kullman (2-6, 4.70 earned-run average) will start against the Beavers on Friday. He’s made nine starts and 14 relief appearances.
Senior righty David Orndorff (5-2, 4.79) and sophomore Garrett Schoenle (4-1, 5.95) have been the Bearcats’ most-used starters this season. Junior lefty Korren Thompson (1-1, 3.86) has 12 saves.
The season didn’t look good early, as the Bearcats started their season 1-9 and later 6-13 before finding some traction in conference play.
They went 13-11 in the AAC and went on to win their first conference championship since 1967. They’ve gathered momentum and are moving forward.
“It’s special. It’s a good group. We’ve gone through some trials and tribulations throughout the season,” Googins said. “To overcome some of those obstacles and for these seniors to be able to experience this, it’s great.”