If you've read absolutely anything about the UCF Baseball team this year, a mention of the Knights' pitching staff was probably somewhere in the first couple of graphs. So, what's the big deal?
"We're more talented than the pitching staff that we had at Miami," UCF head coach and former Miami Hurricane Greg Lovelady said. "We won national championships."
Granted, Lovelady is quick to point out that, much like his offense, there is a question mark regarding how the many new pieces here will fit in given that they simply have never pitched at this level. It's an understandable concern. But if everyone is able to meet the challenge, Lovelady said "it's going to be scary." Here is a look at whom UCF will be depending upon on the mound.
For months, five men battled for the three spots available in the Knights' weekend rotation. Chris Williams was notified on Monday that he had won the No. 1 spot and would be getting the ball for tonight's season-opening game against No. 15 Virginia.
"It was awesome," Williams said about receiving the opening day nod. "It's obviously what you want to be working for, what you strive for."
From a stuff standpoint, Williams doesn't wow you. But Lovelady has lauded the junior's strong mentality, pitch command and ability to hold runners. Plus, Williams has experience and has earned this moment through how he has performed during the offseason and through what he did late last season after moving from a mid-week role into the weekend trio. Williams said that move allowed him to gain better control of his pitches and get into a rhythm. It was quite a rhythm: In his final three starts before the NCAA Regional, Williams was one of the best pitchers in the nation as he permitted just one run over 21 innings. In 78 overall innings pitched, he recorded a 1.02 WHIP and held batters to a .212 average.
Sophomore Joe Sheridan will start Saturday's game versus Rice. Even though he was shooting for that Friday slot, It's still a promotion for someone who, as a true freshman, was the team's best starter while mostly pitching in Sunday series finales. He posted a 3.25 ERA and has been named to the preseason all-conference team in the AAC.
Sheridan is a feel-story. He grew up in Oviedo and can remember coming to baseball games at UCF when he was 4 years old. He's called UCF his dream school. Now he is seen as a team leader and leading by example.
"I would say Joe has been the hardest-working guy," pitching coach Justin Parker said. "... His work ethic is second to none. He's a guy that is super consistent to start with and we're just fine-tuning everything that he does and hopefully building off of that year that he had last year."
It's currently undecided who will get the call for Sunday's matchup against Samford, but it's likely that it will be one of the two most talked-about newcomers: juniors JJ Montgomery or Jordan Spicer.
Montgomery is a former high school football player who spent two seasons at Northwest Florida State, where he registered a 1.87 ERA last season. He is pretty hard to miss thanks to the myriad colorful tattoos adorning his arms. His pitches, however, are missed quite often. Montgomery topped out at 97 MPH last fall and struck out 82 batters in as many innings in 2017.
"I'm definitely an attacker," he said. "I'm a competitor. I'm gonna make you beat me and good luck with that."
Spicer is another highly competitive pitcher with size on his side at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds. He most recently spent two seasons at Polk State and was honored as the Suncoast Conference Pitcher of the Year in 2017.
"His ball moves to both sides of the plate," Parker said of Spicer. "Good cutter, good sinker, good changeup. The full repertoire. He's got four or five ways to beat guys, which is nice to have with his power stuff. He's a low-90s guy that's got a power arm, too."
If you want another indicator of just how much power Montgomery and Spicer are packing, go talk to catcher Anthony George. Or better yet, check his hands for bruises.
"Their stuff just blows you up," George said. "Being a catcher, I'll walk out of the pen and my hand is hurting just because they are throwing so hard. They've got secondary pitches like sliders and curveballs and changeups that are unreal. The movement on them is crazy."
The fifth man in the Knights' own edition of a starting five is junior Thad Ward. Despite the fact that he has started just once in each of the past two seasons, Lovelady sees the Fort Myers native as a swingman who can take the ball regardless of the situation. Ward had a 2.29 ERA last year when he pitched 35.1 innings over 26 appearances. Expect to see him on the bump for some Tuesday and Wednesday games.
The Knights' bullpen was their greatest strength last year. They shortened games with the help of four pitchers who each threw at least 30 innings and had a batting average against of .200 or less. Three of those four arms have moved on. Jason Bahr was the best of the bowed-out bunch -- 60.2 innings, .191 BAA -- but the Knights think they may have found their next Bahr in someone who was actually a Friday night starter just a couple of years ago: Cre Finfrock.
It's been a long road back to baseball for Finfrock. About 18 months long in fact after he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2016. That forced Cre to be only a spectator during UCF's championship run. But now, Coach Parker says the old Finfrock, the ace Finfrock, is back.
"It's still an electric arm," he said. "The slider, the curveball, everything is there."
What won't be there for Finfrock are the innings; Lovelady said he doesn't want him throwing more than 80. The Knights are going to be cautious after such a long layoff, so expect Finfrock to come out of the pen for most of the year. Then, as the season wears on, Lovelady could have some designs on turning him back into a starter. He'll be ready.
"There's been a lot of emotions," Finfrock said. "... To just be able to bounce back and pitch well in the fall, it's been exciting."
Speaking of comebacks, senior Nick McCoy has missed the last two full seasons due to injury. He's finally ready to roll as well out of the bullpen.
Senior Eric Hepple is one of the spare few relievers who actually contributed in 2017 and is still around. He allowed just one earned run and struck out 21 batters in 19.2 frames. He spent his offseason developing a cutter and working on his slider and said his role is "wherever Love wants me."
The rest of the middle relief crew will be introducing itself to Knight Nation. Junior Luis Ferrer and sophomore Jaylyn Whitehead are two lefty specialists. Lovelady said those players along with the likes of underclassmen Jack Sinclair, Jeffrey Hakanson and David Litchfield present the program with an amount of middle-inning talent that it probably didn't have during its conference championship campaign.
✌️ starters returning.— UCF Baseball (@UCF_Baseball) February 14, 2018
2️⃣ of our best relievers are back.
✅ Cre and Nick are healthy.
☝️ closer named Bryce Tucker.
Safe to say our veterans are not short on experience! pic.twitter.com/ljTl8Ng7wp
Of course, the closer comes last and you bet the Knights save the best for last. Junior Bryce Tucker is the finest closer in the AAC, a preseason All-American and a top-100 draft prospect. He struck out 55 men in 38 innings and finished with a minuscule 1.66 ERA last season. And he's adding pitches. Tucker has developed a breaking ball and has been throwing a changeup here and there, all in an effort to give hitters a different look.
"It will make his fastball a lot better, knowing that [opponents] can't just sit on his fastball. They had trouble sitting on the fastball last year, so that's a huge strength," Lovelady said.
This pitching staff will miss the likes of Bahr and Jordan Scheftz in relief, Juan Pimentel and four-year starter Robby Howell in the rotation. Those are big shoes to fill, but as Tucker said, "These guys got big feet." With depth and talent at both the front and back ends, the hope is these Knights can take the steps necessary to reach their ultimate goal: "Win a regional, win a super regional and eventually go to Omaha," Tucker said. "If that's not the goal, then I don't know why you're coming out here and playing."