May 15, 2008
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by TIM ADAMS
Few, if any, Division I college baseball teams can match Cincinnati's speed at the top of its batting order. Bearcat lead-off hitter Tony Campana was second in the entire country with 60 stolen bases in 2007, but Campana may have to come close to matching that lofty number in 2008 if he's simply to hold onto the team lead with the emergence of Jamel Scott as the No. 2 stick in the UC batting order.
After ranking fourth on the squad with only seven steals last season as a freshman, Scott is tied (through April 13) with Campana for the 2008 team lead -- each with 25. Scott's 25 steals have come in 30 attempts, while Campana is 25-for-32.
Scott believes the friendly competition within the squad can only help the team, so his goal is clear.
"I want to get one more than Tony," said Scott, "We keep competing with the stolen bases. Every time I get one, he wants to get one. All it can do is help the team."
Together, Scott and Campana form Coach Brian Cleary's version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. These two Bearcats seem to be stealing everything in sight in helping the Bearcats to an impressive 9-3 BIG EAST record.
When asked about his amazing increase in stolen bases this season, Scott's response was almost as quick as his feet:
"Confidence. Confidence has helped me out there."
That confidence has helped Scott in more than just his ability to steal bases. His batting average has improved from .230 in 43 games last season to .313 after 29 games this year. He has a .402 on-base percentage in '08.
"The transition from my freshman year to my sophomore year gave me a lot more confidence and a better knowledge of the game," said Scott. "That year was a great learning experience. I got to see different pitches and better realize what my game was. I just need to hit the ball and get on base."
Coach Cleary believes the reasons for Scott's increase in thefts on the base paths are twofold.
"I think one thing that contributes to that is he's been on base more, and he's probably a lot more comfortable knowing what to look for and what to do," said Cleary.
The Bearcat coach compared Scott to Campana:
"He's not Campana fast, but he's not too far off. "
The Dublin (Ohio) Scioto grad has also given Cleary some flexibility on defense. Scott broke into the Bearcats' lineup last season as their second baseman and started the first eight games at second base in 2008 before being moved to left field.
"He's capable of doing both," Cleary explained. "He played some outfield in high school, but we started out playing him at second base. After some early defensive struggles in the middle of the infield, moving him to the outfield allowed us to get Chris Peters out there and that helped eliminate some of the problems."
When Scott moved from second base to the outfield, Josh Harrison moved from shortstop to second base. That created an opening for freshman Peters to stabilize the infield with his defensive play at shortstop.
Scott was willing to do whatever was best for the squad.
"I love the infield," he said, "but they told me moving to left field would be better for the team so I'm going with it."
Coach Cleary believes the position switch could also be in Scott's long-term best interest.
"All along we felt he was an excellent candidate to replace Tony Campana when he leaves so it made sense to make the move now," said Cleary.
Marge Schott Stadium has a lot of room in center field and the alleys, so having a speedy replacement for the Bearcat senior center fielder is a must for the future.
In a recent win against Toledo, Scott flashed his defensive potential when he took away an extra base hit from the Rockets as he raced to the left field line and made a diving catch of a fly ball. Teaming with Campana's speed in center field should make that left field gap even smaller as Scott continues to get more defensive experience.
When fans talk about Scott, the issue of his height is inevitably a topic of conversation. The Cincinnati media guide lists him at 5-foot-3, but he empathically refutes that figure.
"I'm actually 5-feet, 5-inches tall," Scott insists.
Despite the smallish stature (whatever it may be), Scott was the first Bearcat to hit a round tripper this season when he homered in the opening series of the year against Miami (Fla.). It was the first home run of his college career, and even he couldn't believe it left the yard. In fact, he stopped at second base.
Scott couldn't help but laugh when asked about the misunderstanding:
"Yeah, it surprised me a little bit. I knew I hit it well, but it must have gotten in the Miami wind."
Coach Cleary also got a hearty laugh remembering the incident.
"He stopped at second base thinking it was a ground rule double or something," the UC coach recalled. "I don't think he thought it went out of the park, and Miami has a very highly-touted first baseman named Yonder Alonso, who was homerless for the weekend. We came home saying who would have thought Jamel Scott would be ahead of Alonso in home runs?"
Hitting immediately behind such a base-stealing threat like Campana does require some patience, but Scott only sees the rewards.
"I'm comfortable hitting down in the count because I want to give him some pitches to get to second base," Scott said. "That gives me the opportunity to get him to third or score him on a hit."
Having such extraordinary speed at the top of his batting order also affects Coach Cleary's philosophy.
"You figure if one of those two guys gets on the bases to start the game or to start an inning, it gives us a pretty good chance to score," Cleary explained. "Their speed allows them to steal second, steal third, or score on a double from first. Their speed causes people headaches. You don't have to give up an out to get them to second base, and that's been helpful."
Scott was named first-team all-Ohio as a high school senior, and the Columbus- area native had some college options. He chose Cincinnati over Xavier, Samford and Alabama.
"Cincinnati was close to home," Scott said. "The facilities were great, and my parents could come see me play."
The athletic Scott, along with his buddies, Campana and Harrison, has a treat planned for Bearcat baseball fans:
"The fans are going to start seeing back flips from us when we take the field and after we win," said Scott.
With his best baseball still ahead of him, there might even be a back flip or two inside the coach's office as Coach Cleary anticipates having Scott return for the next two seasons.