Dec. 2, 2010
By Shawn Sell
Unseasonably warm temperatures and dry weather served as the backdrop for a very productive fall practice season for the University of Cincinnati baseball team under the direction of 14th year head coach Brian Cleary. The fall session culminated with the annual Red-Black intrasquad World Series, won this year in all three contests by the Red Team.
"I thought it was a really good fall for us," Cleary says. "I think everybody usually thinks they had a good fall, but with so many new guys we had a lot of stuff we set out to get done and I think we got a lot of it completed. I think short of playing actual games, we got a good feel for what the new guys can do. I thought it was a very, very productive fall for us."
UC's roster underwent a major overhaul since the 2010 season as the Bearcats welcomed 15 new players. The annual fall practice time, which includes individual and group instruction sessions, along with scrimmages and the annual split squad series, gave Cleary and his staff time to asses not only the 15 newcomers, but also the 16 returning letterwinners. The team was able to take advantage of unusually cooperative and nice weather, paving the way for a great training session for the team.
"I think this fall might be the best weather we have ever had," Cleary says. "We got rained out a day late and it wasn't a bad thing; the guys were starting to drag a bit. The weather was fantastic; the last day of practice was the 21st (of November) and I think it was 70 degrees and sunny. We had tremendous weather for practice all fall and I think that helps in terms of being productive."
During the fall, a number of new players and veterans alike particularly grabbed the attention of the UC staff. Of the newcomers to the pitching staff, junior college lefty Brad Mergen was at the top of the list. A two-time honorable mention all-region selection at Indian Hills (Iowa) Community College, Mergen earned a save and a win during the three-game World Series and is the new pitcher "most ready to contribute right away" according to Cleary. Mergen could be a key arm out of the bullpen for a team that must replace closer Andrew Burkett and Brian Garman, both seniors last season.
With the front end of the starting staff expected to be ably manned by 2010 Freshman All-American Andrew Strenge
and senior Dan Jensen
, sophomore Thomas Gentile
could be another factor in the rotation after a strong fall, as could classmate Zach Isler
. Both had up-and-down freshmen years, but each should improve with more experience.
"Thomas Gentile took a step forward and we think he is going to be a really good player," Cleary states. "The same can be said about Zach Isler and maybe some of the others guys that might not have pitched as much last year,but can help us too."
On the hitting and defense side of the equation, senior Chris Peters figures to be at the head of the leadership department as he enters his fourth season as the Bearcats' starting shortstop. To Cleary, Peters looks like he could enjoy a career year.
"Chris Peters looks as comfortable as he has in his four years here," he says. "That is to be expected since he is a senior, but he just looks much more comfortable on the field than I have ever seen him before."
Peters finished second on the team in batting last season at .294, while also placing among the team-best in runs, hits, doubles, RBI and stolen bases. He should be poised for more this year.
As a true freshman last spring, Jake Proctor struggled. He began turning things around over the summer with the Cincinnati Steam where he hit .277 with a pair of home runs and he brought that into a dazzling Red-Black series performance. In the last two games, Proctor collected four hits, including a two-run homer and a game-winning RBI single, while also swiping a couple of bases. Cleary sees a big improvement on the horizon for the Cincinnati native.
"Jake Proctor had a very good fall coming off what was a difficult freshman year for him," he says. "But to follow that with significant improvement over the summer playing for the Cincinnati Steam and then a good fall, we are really excited about him."
With graduation taking the likes of Jimmy Jacquot, Kevin Johnson and Jamel Scott from the line-up, the Bearcats have questions to answer and they hope a pair of high school teammates all the way from Arizona can help. Catcher Jake Saylor and infielder Sam Vandenheuvel were prep teammates at Hamilton High in Chandler before moving on to Paradise Valley CC and Mesa CC, respectively. Both players were solid in the junior college ranks last year with Saylor earning all-conference and all-region honors and Vandenheuvel hitting over .350. Both kept the momentum going this fall and impressed their new head coach.
"Sam is a junior college transfer who had a good fall and I think he will make a contribution in the infield," Cleary says. "Jake also had a really good fall behind the plate and we think he will be strong back there."
With practice behind them and fall quarter winding down, the Bearcats will now focus on academics until mid-December when preparations for the 2011 season get underway. Official practice will kick off in late January in anticipation of the season opener Feb. 18-20 at the BIG EAST/Big 10 Challenge. Unlike in years past, Cleary expects to be further ahead then usual come opening day because of the near completion of the bubble over the Jefferson Avenue Sports Complex.
"We are as excited as anybody about the bubble going up," he says. "That is a going to be a tremendous benefit to us. I think we are going to be able to be more productive in January then we have ever been. I have been inside of it and it is much bigger than I even anticipated. It's really going to be a tremendous environment for us. We are really anxious to get back and get going."
Red-Black World Series Highlights
Senior RHP Dan Jensen, redshirt freshman RHP Derek Cox and junior LHP Brad Mergen combined on a two-hit shutout for Red. Jensen struck out four in three innings of work to earn the win for Red. Mergen recorded the save.
Red 5 Black 0
Sophomore OF/1B Jack Proctor had two hits including a double, scored three runs and had two stolen bases for Red. Sophomore RHP Andrew Strenge earned the win for Red going three innings, allowing one earned run and striking out five.
Red 10 Black 2
For Red, sophomore OF/1B Jake Proctor had two hits including a two-run homer as well as the game winning RBI single in the top of the ninth. Freshman infielder Ryan Quinn had three hits, a double and an RBI for Red. Mergen earned the win pitching two scoreless innings of relief, while Cox earned the save pitching a scoreless ninth.
Red 5 Black 4