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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Baseball

UH baseball controls its destiny in quest for AAC regular-season title


UH baseball has put itself in a position to win the AAC regular season title just one year after finishing 15 games under .500. | James Mueller/The Cougar

UH baseball has put itself in a position to win the American Athletic Conference regular season title just one year after finishing 15 games under .500. | James Mueller/The Cougar

After a disastrous 2021 season, UH baseball has turned things around and is back where it wants to be — playing meaningful games in May.

“These games in May matter,” said UH baseball head coach Todd Whitting. “It’s a lot of fun to play college baseball in the games that matter right now. We’re playing for a ring.”

Behind UH’s turnaround

Offensive struggles plagued the Cougars in 2021, as the team averaged a mere 4.32 runs per game while batting .239 overall.

The biggest factor that contributed to the struggles at the plate was that the team relied on two players, Ryan Hernandez and Steven Rivas, to carry the offense.

This season has been the complete opposite story.

Five UH regulars are hitting over .300, led by sophomore catcher and Kansas transfer Anthony Tulimero’s .339 batting average. The other four Cougars that play nearly every day are all slashing an average north of .250 leading to an overall team batting average of .289, a 50-point increase from last season.

They say hitting is contagious and I think that’s a true statement,” Hernandez said. 

Shortstop Ian McMillan believes the UH’s success at the plate has come from a combination of buying into new hitting coach Ross Kivett’s offensive philosophy and the scrappy mentality each hitter, one through nine, brings to each at-bat.

“I think we think we’re a bunch of misfit guys, little misfit toys like ‘Toy Story,’ but we all come together and just play really good baseball,” McMillan said.

Pitching, which was another struggle in 2021 with the exception of ace and current San Diego Padres prospect Robert Gasser, has still been problematic for the Cougars at points throughout this season. But overall, the numbers are trending in the right direction as the UH pitching staff has cut its ERA from 5.32 in 2021 to 4.94 this year.

Junior righty Ben Sears, who spent the majority of the 2021 season in a starting role, has found immense success in his new role as the Cougars’ closer and high-leverage reliever, playing a key role in many of UH’s wins.

Sears has been lights out, holding a 2.61 ERA and leading the American Athletic Conference in saves, with 11, and sitting in second in the conference in wins, with six, despite not having started a game.

“People call me the closer, but I just try to go in and do my job,” Sears said. “My velo has jumped a little bit but just getting ahead with my two-seam early in the count, especially into those righties and away to the lefties, has really helped me and is one of the biggest reasons I’ve been successful.”

Cougars’ path to a conference title

The Cougars (33-16) currently sit second in the AAC at 12-6, trailing first-place East Carolina by two games, with two conference series remaining. 

UH hosts UCF, who trail the Cougars by just one game in the AAC standings, in a huge series over the weekend, before heading to Greenville, North Carolina to take on ECU in the final regular-season series May 19-21.

“Going into UCF and ECU, who are two good teams in the conference, we feel like it’s really in our hands to see where we’re going to go,” McMillan said. “It’s exciting.”

If the Cougars take care of business and win the series against the Knights then they control their own destiny in terms of winning the AAC title regardless of how ECU fares against USF over the weekend.

“Coach (Whitting) has just mentioned that we control our own destiny,” Hernandez said. “If we play together, do all the little things right we can go as far as we want to. It’s up to us.”

If UH remains two games back or falls to three back of ECU after this weekend, the Cougars would need to sweep the Pirates in the final regular-season series to win the AAC crown as the first tiebreaker for naming a conference champion comes down to the head-to-head record between the two teams tied. If the Cougars get within one game or closer to ECU then they simply must take two of three against the Pirates and the AAC title is theirs.

Confidence within the walls of the UH baseball program is sky high and the team believes that it will reach the goal of winning a conference championship if it sticks to its identity.

“We’re just playing Houston baseball,” Hernandez said. “We’re doing what Houston baseball is known to do.”

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