After yet another highly-contested regular season in the BIG EAST, to say the 2011 edition of the BIG EAST Baseball Championship is wide open is quite an understatement. While regular season champion Connecticut did claim the crown on the next-to-last week of the year, just three games separated positions three through nine in the final rundown. As the league's top-eight converge on Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla. this week, a wild and drama-filled tournament is sure to be on tap.
The Bearcats' BIG EAST Championship fate wasn't even decided until the final day of the regular season last Saturday when senior Dan Jensen delivered a solid six-inning pitching performance to topple the champion Huskies in the series finale. While each of the Bearcats' seasons in the BIG EAST has been a grind, head coach Brian Cleary doesn't remember a season quite like this one.
"It's just mind-blowing to think that you could go into not just the last weekend, but the last day where, and this was true for both us and Seton Hall, you could wind up in fourth place or you could be left out," he says. "It's just a really tight race. You always know that one game is going to separate second and third or third and fourth, but it seemed even more true this year where one game was separating five or six spots."
As a "reward" for making the tournament, UC which came out on the short end of a four-way tie for fourth place in the league race, will enter the tournament as the No. 7 seed, facing BIG EAST runner-up St. John's in Tuesday's 1 p.m. opening round contest. The Red Storm weren't kind to the Bearcats in the opening weekend of conference play, sweeping UC in the three-game set, including a pair of one-run victories. Despite the early season results, Cleary is looking forward to the match-up.
"We played St. John's the first conference weekend and lost three really close games there where I felt like we could have won all three and as it turns out we lost all three," he says. "I think anybody outside of Connecticut, they have kind of separated themselves from the rest of the league; I think the rest of us are all very similar teams capable of winning. I don't think there is going a big difference in any of the opponents that we could have drawn. St. John's does have a strong No. 1 guy in Hansen who is very, very good."
Kyle Hansen, the Red Storm's likely opening round starter, was an eight-game winner for St. John's this season, while posting a 2.56 ERA and 93 strikeouts. In the regular season against UC, Hansen struck out 10 in seven innings of a 3-2 win. The Bearcats are likely to counter with a surprising name in sophomore Zach Isler.
"We obviously had to use Jensen on Saturday for a good bit so it wouldn't be good for him or for us to bring him back on short rest," Cleary says of the decision. "Isler was been pitching well lately so hopefully he can keep that going."
As Cleary points out, Isler has been on a bit of a roll late in the season. After being dogged by inconsistency this season, the 6'5" right-hander has allowed only three earned runs in his last 18 innings of work, including a complete game in the opener of a doubleheader against Seton Hall on May 14th.
To make a BIG East Championship run similar to the 2008 edition that pushed the Bearcats into the finals, Cleary says it will be vital for his team to continue pitching well and playing solid defense. While he is pleased with an offense that finished fourth in the BIG EAST in hitting, all three facets of the game must be consistent.
"I think we are going to have to get better performances out of our bullpen than we have gotten," he says. "We need to have somebody come out of the pen and give us a good performance. I think if we can pitch and play defense, I like where our bats are right now, we can succeed. I think we are probably ahead of some of the other teams in the field offensively. If we can not give away runs by pitching and playing good defense, I think we have a chance to score enough to win some games."
While Connecticut with 22 BIG EAST wins and St. John's with 18 lead the pack, the rest of the tournament field all won between 13 and 16 league contests, setting the stage for what should be a competitive championship event. As for what team(s) beyond the top-two could make some noise, Cleary's thinks it's really hard to say.
"I think everybody could make some noise," he assesses. "I think that's a fair statement because we have like two or three games separating two from eight in the standings and everybody has beaten everybody. I think that Pitt offensively is pretty electric and if they get hot can cause some people some problems with the way they swing the bat. We played well against them, but they and West Virginia are both very strong offensively. I think you really could pull a name out of a hat and I think everybody probably feels the same way that they have a chance to go in and win the thing."
The BIG EAST Championship kicks off on Wednesday with a full slate of four games, including UC-St. John's at 1 p.m. The Bearcats will continue in the double-elimination event on Thursday against either Pittsburgh or Louisville.