UCF Baseball was in need of a confidence boost Tuesday night. Chained to a three-game losing streak and coming off what head coach Greg Lovelady described as a "frustrating and heartbreaking" weekend, the Knights were set to get on track at home versus Florida Atlantic.
So how'd that go?
"Just a pitiful performance tonight," Lovelady said following to 8-3 defeat. "Really non-competitive. We had one inning where we had some competitive at-bats. The rest of it was just trash, all three facets."
And Lovelady was just getting started. He went on to single out the problems with each of those three facets.
"We didn't pitch very well. We walked too many guys. It seemed like with every at-bat, we were behind in the count. Defensively, we were horrible. Bad behind the plate, which cost us a bunch of runs. Routine ground balls that we weren't able to make. Offensively, we had a four or five at-bat streak there in the middle innings that was good. The rest of them, for the most part, were just non-competitive, just weak outs."
You can't say that the Knights' first-year manager will never be brutally honest.
Senior outfielder Luke Hamblin followed suit, admitting that the team was "lackadaisical" versus the Owls. But neither man fully agreed with the suggestion that this performance was the result of a hangover from the Knights' lost weekend in Tampa, where UCF had just been swept by the rival South Florida Bulls. The combined margin of victory in those three games was four runs.
"We didn't feel like we played as well as we could have, and the guys knew that," Lovelady said Tuesday about the USF series. "[The players] seemed to be in the right mind frame yesterday and going into today, but the results don't say that at all."
If you want to put a positive spin on this, you can say that the Knights have kind of been here before, and given this squad's rollercoaster of results, it's understandable if UCF fans are experiencing a tad of motion sickness.
After winning 11 of their first 12 games this season, the Knights were "exposed" by the Florida State Seminoles. UCF's response to that setback was six straight victories. Then they lost three of four games to the likes of Jacksonville and Dartmouth. That was countered with another small winning streak, including a series triumph over the Houston Cougars, who were ranked as high as 11th in the nation. Just last week, we talked about how successful this team has been thus far, buoyed by a nearly invincible bullpen, a strong rotation, and hitters such as freshman first baseman Rylan Thomas.
However, Thomas is currently in a 1-for-20 funk at the plate. Starting pitchers Robby Howell and Joe Sheridan had rough outings against the Bulls, and the bullpen has shown a few slight cracks recently -- although that's going to happen when you have so many arms that have been pretty close to perfect.
So, here the Knights are, back in a rut and wondering if they have reached their 2017 nadir. Coincidentally, their next opponent has probably been wondering the same thing about themselves for most of the year.
The East Carolina Pirates opened this season ranked No. 6 by Baseball America and brought back many of the players who carried them to the doorstep of the 2016 College World Series. Fast-forward to present day, the Pirates are 0-6 in conference and 7-11 over the past month. Plans have been spoiled by a shipload of injuries to major contributors such as Evan Kruczynski and Dwanya Williams-Sutton, who may be the American Athletic Conference's best starting pitcher and hitter, respectively.
Kruczynski may return this weekend, but UCF can't worry about what's afflicting their opponents; they obviously have their own issues to deal with. Hamblin said a renewed focus on the fundamentals and the game's little things is in order. Lovelady wants his players to work on, among other things, simply visualizing themselves succeeding at the plate and on the mound.
"The power of the mind is crazy," he said.
Most of all, everyone knows there can not be a repeat of Tuesday's lackluster effort.
"We're in a rut right now, but we go to ECU this weekend and we're going to come out ready to fight Thursday," Hamblin said. "We're going to come out playing hard, like we were before."