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UCF Baseball Preview: Many New Faces at the Plate

RYLAN THOMAS, MATTHEW MIKA LEAD POTENTIAL-LADEN BATS

UCF Baseball 2018
If UCF Baseball wants to repeat this scene in 2018, they will have to do it with a bunch of gifted-but-inexperienced hitters. (Photo: Brian Murphy)

UCF Baseball is talented, that much we know. That talent is one of the reasons why they have received a No. 22 preseason ranking from Baseball America and were placed inside the top 30 by a couple of other publications.

However, head coach Greg Lovelady has this to say about talent: "It's great to say you're a talented team, but talent doesn't win championships."

The one glaring unknown about this year's team is how most of it will shine when the lights are brightest, as they will tonight when UCF opens its 2018 season at home versus No. 15 Virginia.

The Black and Gold are pretty green this year. Nineteen players from last season's AAC regular-season champions have departed either via graduation, transfer or the MLB Draft. Rylan Thomas and Matthew Mika are the only returning regulars at the plate and more than half of the remaining roster has never appeared in a Division I game.

"You're just hoping that these guys, especially the new kids, are able to handle this transition," Lovelady said. "If they do, that's going to be an exciting thing. If they don't, then we're going to fight and have to struggle."

Although no one really knows what lies in store, the proverbial cupboard is stocked. Let's take a look at UCF Baseball's offense.

INFIELDERS

First, let's start at first base. Thomas is only a true sophomore, but he is the face of the Knights' lineup. He is also the living embodiment of the adage, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." He doesn't say a whole lot, but his bat is plenty loud. Thomas was named a freshman All-American after clobbering 14 home runs last season, setting the school record for a frosh. He also hit .303, posted a .530 slugging percentage and knocked in 53 runs, second-most in the American Athletic Conference.

Now in his second year, Thomas is one of his team's foremost leaders and the AAC's Preseason Player of the Year. It's an accolade Thomas called "awesome, but I'm looking to be the player of the year at the end."

Thomas also threw eight scoreless innings across seven appearances last year, so don't be shocked to see him pitch in a pinch as well.

To Thomas' immediate right at second base is Mika, a fellow preseason all-conference selection. Last year, the junior was UCF's hottest hitter for the entire month of March, during which he compiled a 13-game hitting streak. Lovelady has called him the best defensive second baseman in the league and said he has further improved as a hitter after a great summer. Mika will be near the top of the Knights' order, making things happen with his bat and then creating havoc on base. His 25 steals were a team-high in 2017, and he struck out just 37 times in 227 at-bats.

PODCAST #90: 2018 Baseball Preview with Coach Greg Lovelady

There's one word that everyone seems to use to describe junior Brandon Hernandez's play at shortstop: "Special." The elite defender transferred in from Santa Fe College after hitting .285 last year. But you get the impression that the Knights are more interested in seeing how many runs he saves rather than provides. Hernandez is a significant reason why UCF's defense up the middle looks very impressive. Freshman Adams Torres can also help out at second or short.

Perhaps the most hotly contested position battle away from the mound was -- and still is -- at third base. There will be a timeshare of some sort, but the top candidates to log the most starts at the hot corner are freshman Griffin Bernardo and sophomore Dallas Beaver.

Bernardo is a Lake Brantley grad whom Lovelady calls "a typical freshman" due to his inconsistent performances. He carries a power bat and is the most gifted player in the third-base race. Yet, as Lovelady said, "the most talented guy doesn't always play."

When Bernardo sits, look for Beaver to be next in line. The Kissimmee product started just three games as a freshman -- all at catcher --- but had a fantastic fall and has been the team's best hitter over the past few weeks leading up to Opening Day, according to his head coach. On the Black and Gold Banneret podcast this week, Lovelady told our Jeff Sharon that Beaver is his "pick to click" in 2018.

"I think he's grown a lot, maturity-wise, work ethic-wise and has just kind of proven to himself that he belongs," Lovelady said.

Starting pitcher Joe Sheridan also tabbed Beaver as his breakout player: "He's been my roommate for two years; that might be a little bias there, but I think he's really going to turn a lot of heads this year."

The Knights could put Beaver at third base, behind the plate, at designated hitter or in the outfield. But they will indeed find a home for his left-handed bat in the middle of their lineup. Ray Alejo, Jackson Webb and Anthony George might also play a little at the 5 spot.

The pitching staff grabs the headlines for this team. But who is going to catch all of those arms? It won't be just one man; George, Beaver and senior Logan Heiser will all be putting down the fingers at catcher. Lovelady has already said Beaver will catch in at least one of the Knights' three games this weekend. George is the best defensive player of the group, so whenever he's not starting, get used to seeing him enter close games in the seventh or eighth inning. He saw action in 42 games in 2017, third-most among all returners behind Thomas and Mika.

Heiser is a one-of-a-kind player: He is the only four-year starter on this club. As such, he has been instrumental in making sure the new Knights jell with the returning players and in helping 33 players proceed as a single unit.

"When you have so many newcomers, especially when they outnumber the returners, it's definitely a little difficult at first just teaching them how things go around here, meshing as a team, like hanging out together off the field, building that team chemistry," Heiser said. "But as of today, our team chemistry is great. It's definitely going to help us this year."

UCF Baseball Preview: Exciting Arms Abound on Pitching Staff

OUTFIELDERS

Alejo is not a natural in center field. He played in the middle of the infield while at Boone High School and at the University of Mississippi, from where he transferred to UCF in 2016. But he has now locked down that job in the middle of the outfield thanks to his speed. Lovelady said Alejo is one of the fastest players he has ever coached.

"He's just made some plays where you think he has no chance of getting it and in a blink of an eye, he's made up ground and is going to come down with the ball," the head coach said.

Alejo will open as UCF's leadoff hitter after being a standout in fall ball. He and Mika at the top of the order are the two players whom Lovelady affectionately calls his "gnats."

"I'd really like to see those guys raise hell on the basepaths," he said.

Tyler Osik will be one of the main men to benefit whenever Alejo and Mika set the table. The junior from Chipola College is penciled in at left field and it sounds like he will be batting third or fourth to start the year. Osik hit .329 and was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates last year. Although he is among that crowd who has never played at the D-1 level, Lovelady said Osik is a "professional hitter" with the maturity to handle such a prominent slot

The Knights will do more mixing and matching in right field. Brody Wofford is another big bat from Chipola. After spending a year at LSU, Wofford slugged better than .500 at Chipola and was a 14th-round pick of the Cincinnati Reds last year. If you're looking for a Rylan Thomas redux, perhaps freshman Dalton Wingo is the best bet.

"He's very similar to Rylan with the ability that he has to hit the ball a long way," Lovelady said of Wingo. "He's a lot taller and athletic. A good defender with a great arm."

Lastly, another W, senior Max Wood, can chip in anywhere in the outfield.

Many of these names may be familiar to only die-hard UCF fans. But this offense is more mobile and powerful than last season's edition, and players such as Beaver, George and Alejo provide needed flexibility. Yes, the pitching staff looks stupendous. Just don't think the Knights are all about pitching in 2018.

"Everyone thinks our pitching is going to be dominant, but no one really sees that we have a lot of guys that have a lot of high power and a lot of guys that can really hit," Alejo said. "I think people are overlooking our lineup and I think we're going to prove people wrong."