By Steve Parkhurst
Eight teams made their way to Clearwater, Florida this week to take part in the double-elimination American Athletic Conference Championship.
The action opened up on Tuesday morning with a temperature hovering around 85 degrees as Central Florida faced Cincinnati in the first of four games on the day.
The first two innings in Clearwater were indicative of what would be a completely unpredictable first four days of championship play.
Those first two innings lasted just shy of an hour as the two teams combined for six runs, five hits, four walks, and a solo home run. Central Florida led 4-2 in a contest matching the two middle seeds in the Championship.
Cincinnati scored five runs in the fourth inning to lead 7-4. But a nine run eighth inning propelled UCF to a come from behind 14-10 victory. The game snuck in at just under four hours but pushed the rest of the day’s games back from initial start times.
Top-ranked East Carolina faced the bottom seed Memphis in the day’s second game.
The Pirates got on the board quickly as Connor Norby led off the bottom of the first with a home run to deep left. It was the last time ECU would score a run on Tuesday. Memphis was the story the rest of the game.
A bases loaded walk tied the game in the top of third—the Tigers chased the ECU starter with only one out on their way to an eventual 5-1 lead. In the fifth inning, a two-run home run was followed on the next pitch by a solo shot, and a few pitches later another solo shot made it 9-1 Memphis. The Tigers tied an AAC Championship record of four home runs in a game.
Carson Stinnett was outstanding on the mound for the Tigers as he went 6 1/3 innings allowing just the one run. The game ended after seven innings as Memphis run-ruled East Carolina in a seemingly improbable outcome heading into day one.
In Tuesday’s third game, Tulane beat Houston 4-1 in the low-scoring game of the day. Robert Gasser led Houston while Trent Johnson took the ball for Tulane. The two sides were scoreless until the bottom of the sixth when Tulane bunted home a run. Houston tied the game in the next frame on a Ryan Hernandez solo home run.
The Green Wave wasted no time getting the lead back as Walker Burchfield hit a solo home run in the bottom of the seventh. Keagan Gillies relieved Johnson for the final 1 2/3 innings, while Tulane added their final two runs in the eighth to advance with the 4-1 win.
South Florida beat Wichita State 7-2 in a game that went well into the night to close out the day. The Bulls got to Shockers starter Liam Eddy in the first and chased him from the game in the first frame. Roberto Pena homered in the second inning to give USF a 5-0 lead.
Bulls starter Connor Sullivan pitched 5 2/3 innings and exited with the lead. USF only used two pitchers in the win, while Wichita State used five pitchers in defeat.
Norby once again led off with a home run to get his team in front of Cincinnati on day two. Norby used his second at-bat of the game to launch a three-run opposite field home run in the second inning to stake ECU to a 5-0 lead.
Cincinnati stayed in the game and pieced together some runs, with Joey Bellini providing a big three-run home run as part of a five-run sixth. But ECU kept scoring runs as well.
ECU won the slugfest 13-9 to eliminate Cincinnati. The Pirates used eight pitchers in the game, none pitched more than three innings.
After the game Norby was asked about ECU’s mentality going into the game and he said, “Survive and advance, that was all we talked about.” Asked about hitting home runs in Clearwater at various times of the day, Norby stated, “You got to play with the wind.”
In the nightcap, Wichita State eliminated Houston 5-3 in a relatively well pitched game by both sides. Houston was two outs away from being shut out in the ninth, when catcher Kyle Lovelace hit a one-out home run to left, his first career home run in his 401st career at-bat.
By the end of Wednesday, Cincinnati and Houston had been eliminated and six teams remained with three days left to determine who would play in Sunday’s championship game.
Thursday afternoon opened with UCF obliterating Memphis in a winners’ bracket contest 17-1. The run-rule was mercifully applied after the seventh inning, but before that, UCF’s Josh Crouch had belted two home runs, his second and third of the week. The Knights added an inside the park home run as the wheels completely fell off for Memphis. UCF hit an AAC record seven home runs in the game, surpassing by three the previous record of four home runs.
Thursday’s second game featured previous winners—Tulane and South Florida. The Bulls took a 2-0 lead in the third inning on a two-run home run by Roberto Pena. That was all USF starter Jake Jasiak would need as he went 8 2/3 innings scoreless, allowing just two hits while retiring nineteen straight Green Wave batters for a stretch.
Jack Aldrich pitched well for Tulane, striking out ten in 6 1/3 innings where he allowed three runs, but he was outpitched by his mound opponent. The Bulls shut out Tulane 5-0 for their second championship series win in as many games. After the game Jasiak asked about his team’s focus said, “It was a really good night, and we were locked-in from the start.”
In Friday’s first game, East Carolina got out to a 2-0 lead in the second, added a run in the third and three more in the fourth. ECU starter Gavin Williams pitched a complete game while his offense piled up twelve runs on the way to a 12-0 seven-inning, run-rule shutout. The final result was almost an exact reversal of Tuesday’s first matchup between these two teams, but this time the outcome resulted in the losing team being eliminated.
Tulane and Wichita State played Friday’s second game for the final spot in Saturday’s semi-finals round. Tulane sent their ace, Braden Olthoff to the mound for his first start of the week, which meant Olthoff was properly rested from his last start.
The contest was close, early. Tulane scored a run in the bottom of the first. That was matched by Corrigan Bartlett’s solo home run in the second which tied the game.
The Green Wave had a four-run fourth and took a 5-2 lead. In the fifth, Tulane put together hit after hit to slowly expand the lead to 12-2 going to the sixth. Olthoff did not let up and he went the rest of the way, pitching through seven innings with the run-rule in effect to close out both Wichita State and Friday’s action.
So, the AAC is down to its final four teams headed into the last two days of play. Saturday will see matchups of Central Florida against East Carolina, and South Florida versus Tulane. The two Florida schools have yet to lose a game this week, if either or both lose their opening games early on Saturday, they will get to return later Saturday afternoon for the right to play for the title on Sunday. In a weekend series where anything can happen, it has, and the weekend ahead promises not to be boring.