Feb. 15, 2012
By Shawn Sell
Over the last handful of years, UC head baseball coach Brian Cleary has started to change his points of emphasis, not only when it comes to in-game strategy, but also in recruiting and the make up of his roster. After joining the BIG EAST, he quickly realized that gone were the days of relying on home run hitters because of some bigger ballparks in the league. When the NCAA mandated changes to bats prior to last season, his feelings of emphasizing speed, pitching and defense were magnified. With the make up of the 2012 edition of the Bearcats, UC's 16th year skipper feels this year's team could be a contender.
"We've really tried to emphasize defense and pitching in how we are recruiting and spending our scholarship money because of the change in the bats," Cleary says. "Although I wish we had a little more team speed, I think we are built suitably (to win)."
While the MLB draft and graduation did take some important pieces of last year's 30-27 squad (namely outfielder Justin Riddell, shortstop Chris Peters and pitchers Dan Jensen and Nick Johnson), a very solid nucleus is back in place for UC this spring. Cleary's squad features 19 returning letterwinners, including seven position playing starters. While he appears cautiously optimistic about the season, Cleary admits he has stopped trying to guess how the season will go.
"I've given up trying to predict it because it's so hard to know," he says. "But I like the make up of this team and I think we have a chance to be pretty good."
The strength of the squad figures to come from a strong core of returning position players, particularly in the outfield. While the production of Riddell (team leader in average, home runs and RBI last season) will be missed, a solid trio of senior Braden Kline, junior Jake Proctor and sophomore Justin Glass should make up the difference. Kline and Glass were both All-BIG EAST selections a year ago, while Proctor brings a nice blend of speed (team leader with 23 steals) and power to the line-up. The season will start with Kline in left field, Proctor patrolling center and either Glass or senior T.J. Jones in right. Glass will likely open as the DH as he finishes recovering from off-season shoulder surgery, with Jones filling in.
Three fourths of the 2011 starting infield returns in tact, led by senior first baseman Nic Spence
. After a tough start to his first UC season, the Australia native turned things around late in the season and could be a nice power threat for the Bearcats. Senior Sam Vandenheuvel
, a 51-game starter at second base last year is also back and will see plenty of time again. Cleary plans to use him more as a relief pitcher this spring after five appearances on the hill last season. That move will spell starting opportunities at second for rapidly improving sophomore Ryan Quinn
While the right side of the infield is back, the left side is quite the opposite. Freshman Joey Bielek, a talented newcomer from Arizona is penciled in to start at third, a slot manned by Matt Williams a season ago. Williams is not out of the picture however, as he slides over to shortstop, replacing four-year starter Peters. While this will be Williams' first taste at short as a college player, Cleary is confident the move will be a smooth one.
"I think the more difficult transition for Matt was trying to play third base last year," he says. "He played shortstop in high school and up until he got here. I think this is a more natural place on the field for him and he feels a lot more comfortable."
The catching position presents another interesting situation for the Bearcats who welcome back senior Jake Saylor. In his first year after junior college, Saylor was solid in 2011 and will be counted on again this spring. His top back-up will likely be Kline, a catcher by trade who learned the outfield last year to get his able bat in the line-up. Expect to see more of Kline behind the plate this year, along with Western Kentucky transfer J.P. Jackson.
The pitching staff features seven hurlers who threw significant innings for the Bearcats last season and a pile of talented, but inexperienced newcomers. Leading the staff as the projected No. 1 starter will be Andrew Strenge. A Freshman All-American two seasons ago, Strenge's numbers trailed off slightly last year (4-5, 4.54 ERA), but Cleary is confident he can adapt to the new, No. 1 role.
"It's hard to do without ever having done it," he says of being the top starter. "But losing Jensen in that role, somebody has to stand up and step into that. He does not have dominating stuff, but his stuff is good. When he pitches well, you look up and it's the seventh inning and he has given up two runs and you're winning the game. If he can pitch well and be consistent, I think he has a chance to be a very good Friday night guy for us."
Following Strenge, Cleary will look to sophomore Matt Ring (4-1, 3.72 ERA) to slip into the next starter spot. After that, competition for the final weekend starting slot is fierce and should come from a group that includes redshirt sophomore Christian McElroy, senior Brad Mergen, junior Thomas Gentile and freshman Zach Morris.
The back end of the bullpen will be anchored by junior Zach Isler. Isler had an interesting 2011, saving two games and by seasons end, hurling a complete game in a start vs. Seton Hall. He should be more comfortable in the closer role after leading the Great Lakes Collegiate League with eight saves over the summer.
As Cleary has been known to say, "the next time we have too much pitching will be the first time," his talent pool does seem to be deep in the pen. In addition to whatever of the hurlers isn't starting, along with Vandenheuvel, Cleary is also counting on innings from senior Cory Hough and a freshmen contingent that includes Bryan Chenoweth, Matthew Lathuras and Grant Walker.
In his 16th season in charge of the UC program, Cleary finds himself cautiously optimistic about the chances this year's team has. With a team that should be competitive and 11 local players dotting the roster, he is also hopeful to gather the support of the Cincinnati community, especially during a 30-game home schedule.
"I think (college baseball) is something that is intoxicating and baseball fans can really sink their teeth into," he says. "This group has some guys that really play hard and people are going to enjoy watching. I think it's going to be a good time at the stadium and be a great atmosphere for people to come and enjoy."