The UCF Baseball team is 29-12 and just one game out of first place in the American Athletic Conference. The Knights have responded from their "trash" performance on April 12 to win six of their last seven games. Friday marks the start of another crucial conference series, one that immediately precedes a nine-game road trip.
But Friday will be about something far more important than a baseball game. It will be about life. It will be about Joe Skinner.
Skinner was a third baseman at Bishop Moore Catholic High School who committed to UCF in December 2015. Just two weeks later, however, he was diagnosed with hypodiploid acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Following four months of fighting, Skinner passed away on April 30, 2016. He was 17 years old.
Skinner never played for UCF, but his impact on the program is clear. A #SkinnerStrong banner was placed on the right-field wall shortly after his passing and remains there today. The team is in the midst of a month-long fundraising effort in Skinner's honor. The total amount of money raised will be announced prior to Friday night's game -- it's north of $20,000 right now -- and every cent will be used in the fight against pediatric cancer.
Head coach Greg Lovelady said he regrets never being able to meet Skinner but that his players, especially the freshmen with whom Skinner would have entered the program this season, have expressed just how much he meant to them. Thus, Lovelady has taken on a major role in the fundraising. As of this writing, he has helped raise more than $2,200 for the cause.
"To be able to leave a legacy like he did as a high school kid is really something. I think it says a lot about him," Lovelady said of Skinner. "... I'll do everything I can to keep his name and legacy going here as long as I'm here. Hopefully long after I'm here, they will always remember what he meant to the program. Even though he never played here, his name will hopefully be ingrained into our program forever."
One of those freshmen, starting pitcher Joe Sheridan, will be on the mound for Sunday's series finale. Instead of spending his first season as a Knight with Skinner, Sheridan will be pitching on the one-year anniversary of his death. That occasion is certainly not lost on him.
"Hopefully we can do something big next week for him, take the sweep," Sheridan said last Sunday. "Even though baseball does not really matter when you think about something like that, we'll have something to play for that's bigger than us next week."
Friday's game versus Memphis will begin at 6:30 p.m., at which time the Knights will have to turn their attention back to the field, where they have been on a bit of a roll over the past two weeks.
UCF has won its last two conference series -- a road sweep of East Carolina followed by a 2-1 weekend against Connecticut. In that lone loss last Saturday, the Knights left the tying run on second base in the ninth. Lovelady said that he challenged his players following that defeat to show more fight from the opening pitch the next day.
That message was received and implemented as the Knights scored four runs in the first inning and stole four bases against the Huskies. Placing that kind of pressure on the opponent is something Lovelady adores, and he said that game, UCF's most recent one, was probably the team's best of 2017.
"We put pressure on every inning. That's what our offense is supposed to be about: making things happen on the bases, putting pressure on guys, making people feel uncomfortable on the mound. We were able to take advantage of that stuff."
The Knights have played plenty of good baseball this season. The persistent problem has been playing at a high level consistently. This squad has put together four winning streaks of at least four games. Conversely, it experienced a four-game losing streak earlier this month and also dropped three of four games versus non-conference foes over a week-long stretch in March.
How do the Knights stay on this current roll?
If you ask Lovelady, you will hear the usual talking points -- an all-out effort on every pitch, treating each game as the year's most important, never being satisfied. But outfielder Bryce Peterson said last week that the offense simply needs to do more. He has a point. You can't really put any blame on the pitching staff, which possesses the second-best ERA in Division I (2.52) and boasts seven players with at least 10 appearances who have held opponents to a sub-.250 batting average.
UCF's offense is far from a weakness for this team; Eli Putnam, Rylan Thomas and Luke Hamblin, to name a few, have been stellar at the plate since game one. But as Lovelady said about his bats last week, "It's going to be scary when we get four or five guys kind of hot at the same time and continue to pitch the way we've pitched."