It's not like the UCF Baseball team hasn't experienced a tear-your-heart-out loss this season. You could point to Feb. 28 versus Florida for evidence. Or March 24 versus Dartmouth. Or just two weekends ago versus Tulane.
But given the championship circumstances, the opponent and how everything unfolded -- or rather unraveled for the Knights -- Thursday's 7-4 loss to the South Florida Bulls felt like a punch to the gut in what UCF head coach Greg Lovelady has termed a "heavyweight fight" series. Here's the good and the bad from the series opener, including why earning the American Athletic Conference regular-season title remains well within the Knights' reach.
Without a doubt, the story of the night into the eighth inning was UCF starting pitcher Robby Howell. Nineteen of his 23 outs were either groundouts or strikeouts; he gave up just five hits to the conference's leader in batting average; he also issued no walks to the AAC's No. 1 team in that category, which was especially significant since Howell had permitted 23 free passes in his previous six starts. The senior was on his way to perhaps a career-best outing. Then a two-out single followed by an opposite-field homer by USF's Duke Stunkel Jr. tied the game in a stunning flash. Howell was taken out one batter later, deserving of more than a no-decision.
"Robby did a phenomenal job, had a great start for us," Lovelady said. "He really was dominant for most of the game. [Stunkel] hit a home run on a really good pitch."
After Ryan Crile's ninth-inning, pitch-hit, no-doubt homer tied the game at 3-3, the Knights had to be feeling pretty good about their chances, knowing that closer Bryce Tucker was waiting in the wings. Sure enough, the sophomore breezed through the 10th. But in the fateful 11th inning, we saw a Bryce Tucker we had yet to see in 2017.
He walked his first batter on four pitches and two of his next three offerings beaned Bulls batters, loading the bases. Then with two outs, Tucker allowed a bases-loaded walk and a three-run double that blew the game open. Lovelady attributed Tucker's ugly outing to his closer trying to guide pitches instead of throwing naturally.
"That's not the strength of what he does," the head coach said of Tucker. "He just got out of character, got out of what he does well."
Rare bullpen struggles
The Knights' bullpen has been outstanding for much of the season, led by its backend duo of Tucker and setup man Jason Bahr. However, both men were scored upon Thursday and have had some rocky times recently. Bahr has given up a run in two of his last three appearances while Tucker has seen his ERA rise in three of his last four games. Lovelady did say he is not worried about his closer and that both pitchers would be available for tonight's contest despite each throwing more than 30 pitches in the opener.
"If we've got to use them, we've got to use them," Lovelady said.
The ultimate goal is still within reach
The message from Lovelady to his players after this deflating defeat? Have a short memory. That's because UCF still controls its own destiny for an AAC title. With Houston's loss to Cincinnati on Thursday, the Knights are kind of back in the same spot they were in 24 hours ago: Win out and you're champs. Plus, with Bulls on the doorstep of claiming the league championship for themselves, the Knights must always expect nothing to come easy this weekend. Thursday was undeniable proof of that.
"We knew it was going to be just like this," Lovelady said. "We knew it was going to be a heavyweight fight with two great teams going at it."
The Knights are 6-1 in conference series this season. That's a testament to how well the team has played in the bookend games of each because UCF is just 2-5 in the middle games. The hope is tonight's starter, sophomore Chris Williams, can buck the trend. He certainly did last Saturday in game No. 2 of UCF's series versus Cincinnati, logging six innings of one-hit, one-run ball in a winning effort. Lovelady said he expects more of the same from the Fort Lauderdale native.
The Knights just expect to win.
"Devastating loss there, but we're going to turn the page [Friday] and come back and get the W," Crile said.