The 2017 UCF Baseball team is facing a new opponent this week: adversity.
Until Tuesday, the season had been full of highlights and worthy praise. The bats, especially at the top of the lineup, were clicking. The pitchers were challenging hitters and getting stellar results. Even against No. 2 Florida on Feb. 28, in UCF’s lone loss through its first 12 games, the Knights frankly outplayed the Gators.
The momentum that had been built up over the season’s first three weeks was halted abruptly in home losses to Florida State on Tuesday and Wednesday. There is no shame in falling to one of the nation’s best — the Seminoles are ranked No. 2 or No. 3 in all of the major college baseball polls. It’s how the games unfolded that is the story.
Poor at-bats. An inability to throw strikes consistently. Baserunning blunders. Six errors. It was ugly. Head coach Greg Lovelady called his team’s level of play on Tuesday “horrible.” On Wednesday, it was the same result on the field and much of the same sentiment off of it as Lovelady said his team was “not much” more competitive than the previous night. He also lamented an apparent lack of competitiveness at the plate.
“We let too many balls go right down the middle,” he said. “We’ve got to understand that you’ve got to think ‘yes yes yes’ until it’s a ball. I think we’re guessing a little bit too much out there. Because of that, we’re letting some really good pitches to hit go by.”
You don’t have to hang around Lovelady long before he brings up “controlled violence”: a way of being aggressive but composed at the plate. The Knights were unable to unleash any violence as they struck out 22 times in these two games. That’s in sharp contrast to the Knights’ first 12 games, in which they struck out 76 times in total. And that top of the lineup — senior Eli Putnam, senior Luke Hamblin, freshman Rylan Thomas and sophomore Kyle Marsh — combined to go 2-for-28 with 14 strikeouts.
Control was too often not in the cards for the men on the mound either. Granted, Florida State’s offense leads the nation in walks, and the corners of the plate seemed to vanish and reappear over the course of Wednesday’s matchup, but the Knights handed out nine free passes in that game, including five in a fifth inning that saw the Seminoles score twice, leave the bases loaded and do all of it without a hit.
In the field, the errors are mounting. On the basepaths, UCF’s only true threat Wednesday was snuffed out when, with the bases loaded and one out, a hard liner by Hamblin was snagged by Florida State’s third baseman, who doubled off senior Austin Griffin as he had ventured just a bit too far down the third-base line.
Facing a lesser team, perhaps the Knights would have overcome their myriad miscues to still grab a victory. But Lovelady knows that doesn’t fly against the cream of the crop and he hopes this sobering set serves as a wake-up call for his players.
“This was a good way to grade ourselves out, and we didn’t do a very good job,” he said. “These are the types of games you need to have. I’m not happy that we lost, but we got exposed a little bit on some different things. … We showed some things that we really, really need to work on, which is good. I’d rather learn that now than in 11 weeks in the conference tournament.”
The Knights went back to work on Thursday, trying to shore up all of those problem areas through practice. Florida State is in the rear-view mirror, but with critical conference matchups versus Houston and East Carolina looming next month, there is much to be done in not too much time if the Knights want to be a tougher task for their next ranked opponents.
In their immediate future, however, is a three-game series against Central Michigan beginning tonight at the UCF Baseball Complex. How will this team respond after experiencing back-to-back losses for the first time?
“I don’t know,” Lovelady said. “Guess we’ll find out Friday.”