UC’s Happ living up to the hype and then some

Cincinnati Bearcats outfielder Ian Happ has made his mark.

CINCINNATI — A post-game interview would have to wait a couple of minutes. Ian Happ had some cleaning duties to perform. He’s no different than the rest of his teammates, even if he is.

Happ is the junior right fielder for the University of Cincinnati who this June could become the first player in program history to be a first-round pick since Major League Baseball began its amateur player draft in 1965. His stats are impressive no matter where Happ would be playing but considering he’s on a team that includes 22 freshmen on its roster and is just starting to realize some of its upside potential, Happ’s numbers carry even more weight.

He’s hitting .397 with an on-base percentage of .519 and slugging percentage of .719 to go along with 10 home runs, nine doubles and 29 RBI. He’s been named to the mid-season Golden Spikes Award watch list by USA Baseball and a mid-season All-America team member by D1Baseball.com.

Just like his duties of working with the other outfielders to clean up the home dugout Marge Schott Stadium, Happ is taking all of his success and personal accolades in stride.

"It’s going well," said Happ. "It’s been a roller coaster. It always is."

UC (12-23) won six of eight games before losing to Wright State 15-9 Wednesday night in the championship game of the Joe Nuxhall Classic. The Bearcats fell behind 8-1 before getting as close as 12-9 in the eighth inning. Happ’s 10th home run of the season was two-run shot to the opposite field over the wall in left-center field that got UC to within three runs late.

UC beat Xavier 4-0 on Tuesday behind a three-hit shutout from freshman pitcher Tristan Hammans in his first career start.

"That’s the kind of stuff we’ve been trying to do," said Happ. "Have our pitching keep us in it and have our offense score enough to win. That’s how we’ve been playing. Tonight (Wednesday) was a little different where the offense had to pick the pitching up and it just didn’t happen."

FUTURE FIRST ROUNDER?

No team in the NCAA Division I ranks has more freshman on its roster than UC. Heading into the Joe Nuxhall Classic, 81.7 percent of UC’s pitching appearances had been handled by freshmen or sophomores and at least four freshmen have started every game this season. Five of the six pitchers who appeared against Xavier and Wright State were freshmen.

The team’s extensive youth is one of the reasons UC coach Ty Neal is able to look beyond the stats when it comes to Happ’s contributions.

"He’s been great. He’s been leading this team," said Neal, who is in his second year as the head coach. "He’s handling the success well and he’s leading these young guys, teaching them right and wrong along the way. He’s got a nice presence to him in the clubhouse and in the dugout.

"It’s the way he goes about his business. He’s now approaching our younger guys with things like ‘Hey, this is what works for me,’ or ‘Hey, we don’t do that here.’ He’s holding guys accountable a little bit but also being a good teammate. He’s sharing information, sharing wisdom, trying to pass things on that will help them and allow them to be a good player. He’s handling that well with a good balance."

UC travels to Houston this weekend for a three-game series against the Cougars, who are the defending American Athletic Conference champions and reached the NCAA Super Regionals last year. The teams are in a four-way tie for fourth in the AAC with 4-5 league records but Houston is 23-14 overall and ranked No. 25 in this week’s National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association poll.  

UC is the only team in the AAC with an overall record of sub-.500 but the Bearcats have shown progress the past few weeks.

UC lost three games at then-No. 14 Mississippi State on its opening weekend of the season, and then lost four at then No. 29 Nevada in mid-March but took two of three games against Central Florida when it was ranked No. 6 at the beginning of April. The Bearcats got their first road win of the season at Indiana last week before taking two of three games against Memphis.

"I’m growing up and managing to be a better leader with this young group," said Neal. "I’m not taking credit for the recent wins. I’m taking the bullet for maybe some of the earlier losses."

Happ has been dealing with the focus of scouts and a decision he’ll have to make in June for a couple of years. He’s played in the Cape Cod Summer League each of the last two years and been an all-star each summer there. His focus hasn’t been climbing the record list in the UC program, however. It’s been helping to raise the program’s success.

"Winning the last two weekends (against Central Florida and Memphis) have been huge. We’re just trying to take series," said Happ. "We’ve been playing with a different level of confidence. I think at the beginning of the year the younger guys didn’t understand how tough it is to lose and what it’s like to lose that much. They were kind of okay with losing.

"Once we started winning, once we got on the track a little bit, they’ve figured out that winning is a hell of a lot more fun than losing."