Road to Omaha still paved with holes
With only four conference series and 16 total games remaining for the Cougars, tournament season is just around the corner. Currently tied for first in the AAC and ranked in a multitude of polls, they are in prime position to make a deep run toward Omaha, Nebraska and the College World Series.
At 27-12 on the year, including some curious losses to weaker competition, the Cougars have shown they have the talent to be a national competitor but still have plenty of room for improvement over the final month of play.
After struggling earlier in the season to put up runs against elite pitching, the Cougars have corrected that since early March, averaging over seven runs per game over their last 26. Key to the offensive revival has been newcomer Jake Scheiner.
The junior shortstop has exploded onto the scene in his first season with the Cougars, leading the American and ranking No. 18 nationally with 12 home runs.
“When I get the right pitch, I will take a good swing on it, and most of the time, the results are a hard hit ball hopefully over the fence,” said Scheiner in an interview with the Houston Chronicle.
Since transferring from Santa Rose (California) Junior College, Scheiner has done it all for the Cougar offense, leading the team in eight statistical categories while hitting .375/.459/.729 en route to be named to the midseason Golden Spikes Watch list.
In addition to Scheiner, junior catcher Connor Wong has been a steady force at the top of the lineup.
Named by Baseball America as the No. 88 best college prospect, Wong has been a menace on the base paths to opposing pitchers. He is currently second in the AAC with 18 stolen bases and leads the conference with 37 runs scored.
Not known for his power, Wong has shown glimpses of it this year, hitting eight long balls, including three in a game against Tulane on Sunday. Though ranking in the middle of the pack when it comes to home runs, Houston has turned it on in AAC play, hitting 18 of their 34 total against conference foes.
If the Cougars hope to make a deep run come June though, they’re going to need other players to step up as well.
A season after he hit a freshman record 14 home runs, sophomore designated hitter Joe Davis has been unable to repeat that success. The reigning AAC Freshman Player of the Year has hit only five home runs in 146 at-bats, with only 11 extra base hits total.
When the offense is on though, the team is nearly unbeatable, going 26-3 in games in which they score at least three runs.
Coming into 2017 the rotation was seen as the biggest strength of the team. Returning three of their top four starters from 2016, Cougar pitchers started the season on fire, ranking as high as No. 3 nationally in ERA.
Though they still rank in the top 10, the team has had to compensate after a suspension led them to lose one of the best pitchers in the nation and a sure first-round pick in June’s MLB Draft.
On April 7, the team announced that junior left-hander Seth Romero had been suspended indefinitely for multiple violations of university and athletic department policy.
At the time of his suspension, Romero was 3-3 with a 3.05 ERA and ranked in the top 3 in the nation in strikeouts. Despite not pitching since March 31, he still ranks No. 3 in the AAC in strikeouts.
In his absence, the Cougars moved midweek starter Trey Cumbie to Romero’s slot on Fridays and haven’t missed a beat.
Though not as prolific a strikeout thrower, the sophomore left-hander has easily been the best pitcher for the Cougars this season, going 6-0 with a 2.25 ERA in nine starts. He burst onto the national scene after a complete-game shutout against then-No. 10 University of Louisiana.
Along with Cumbie, the weekend rotation has consisted of sophomore righty Mitch Ullom and senior southpaw John King. Ullom has had an up-and-down season, going 5-3 with a 3.49 ERA in 10 starts, while King has been a workhorse, going 5-1 with a 3.26 ERA and throwing three complete games in a team-high 60 2/3 innings.
Since Cumbie’s move to the weekend though, the Cougars have struggled to find a consistent midweek replacement. Freshmen Henry Carter and Brayson Hurdsman have both struggled in the position, as the Cougars have gone 0-3 in midweek contests since Romero’s suspension.
In the bullpen, sophomore Aaron Fletcher has emerged as the go-to reliever, going 1-0 with a 0.39 ERA and six saves in 11 appearances. Fletcher is one of four Cougars who have made at least eight relief appearances with an ERA of 3.00 or lower.
Despite having one of the nation’s lowest ERAs the Cougars have struggled to win when the offense hasn’t been there. They are currently 1-9 when scoring two runs of less and 0-6 when totaling one or less.
For them to make a deep run to Omaha the Cougars are going to have to find a way to win when their offense isn’t firing on all cylinders. In addition, the emergence of a consistent fourth starter would be invaluable.