It began so well. The UCF Baseball team commenced its march back to the NCAA Tournament with a victory over the No. 15 Virginia Cavaliers last Friday night. The Knights' pitching was overwhelming at times. The middle of the order -- Dallas Beaver and Rylan Thomas -- sent balls over the wall. It occurred in front of a record crowd at John Euliano Park. Life was swell.
Since then, one week has felt like a month as some cringe-worthy defense and inept bats have the Knights at 1-3 entering the start of tonight's home series versus Savannah State. Let's go through the good, the bad and the ugly of the season's first four games.
JJ is Dy-no-mite!
UCF's pitchers have been impressive as a collective unit thus far. Joe Sheridan threw six shutout innings versus Rice, picking up right where he left off as a freshman in 2017. Thad Ward struck out seven Stetson Hatters in just three innings Tuesday. Jordan Spicer allowed two runs over five innings with seven Ks against Samford. But it was another junior college transfer who stole the spotlight.
In two appearances this past week. JJ Montgomery struck out 11 batters and permitted just three hits over six scoreless frames. He was dominant against Virginia, showcasing a high-90s fastball and a big, sharp curveball. At Stetson, his night started with a leadoff triple. No worries. He shot back a little "Oh, well" glance toward UCF's dugout and went on to strike out the side, stranding that runner at third.
Montgomery is really good, and you get the sense that he knows it.
"I can come at you with a fastball for strike three, curveball, changeup. I've got an arsenal of pitches," he said after the Virginia win.
Montgomery's role for now has him as a bullpen weapon during the week, but he said he is looking forward to starting against the likes of Florida, Florida State and Miami before possibly moving into the weekend rotation during conference play. If he keeps pitching like this, he will have to be a part of that rotation.
Finfrock is Back
Not to be outdone by Montgomery or any other of UCF's standout pitchers during week one, Cre Finfrock made his return to the diamond Sunday -- his first since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2016 -- and was absolutely on point. Finfrock, who was this program's Friday night starter as a freshman in 2015, will be a multi-inning reliever for most of the season, much like he was on Sunday versus Samford. During his comeback appearance, Finfrock topped out at 96 mph and struck four of the six batters he faced. He said getting back on the field was "an awesome feeling."
A Comedy of Errors
Each of the Knights' three losses has been a one-run game. And in two of them, you could point directly to poor defense as the reason for the result. The Knights committed four errors on Saturday against Rice. Not only is that surprising given UCF's skill in the field, but two crucial mistakes were committed by Matthew Mika, perhaps the best defensive second baseman in the American. He let a possible double-play grounder roll right through his legs and then dropped a ball on a force out attempt later on. Each error gave the Owls an unearned run in the 5-4 game. Of course, Mika's no good, horrible, very bad day at second unfolded after Aaron Fitt of D1Baseball.com tweeted this about him:
Impressed with @UCF_Baseball second baseman Matthew Mika’s defense early on in this one. Showed good actions, instints and a quick transfer on a tricky play to get the lead runner at second base. Next batter grounded into a 5-4-3 double play, very nice turn by Mika.— Aaron Fitt (@aaronfitt) February 17, 2018
"Our infield is supposed to be one of our strengths, so to see those guys not play very well is just frustrating," head coach Greg Lovelady said Saturday.
The next day, the Knights blew a 4-2 lead in the ninth inning versus Samford, which scored the eventual winning run when right fielder Brody Wofford overran a hit to the outfield.
Where's the "Ping"?
Since their Virginia win, UCF's offense is hitting just .192 and has scored just six earned runs in three games. No one on the team owns a batting average higher than .286. Lovelady's greatest concern with this group entering the season was its lack of Division I experience, especially in the batter's box. Sure enough, many of the new kids have struggled, but the struggles are really team-wide right now. No one is exempt.
"We're scuffling offensively. Everyone knows that. The whole team knows that," Lovelady said following his team's 1-0 defeat at Stetson where the Knights were held to four hits and allowed only three. "We've got to do other things to be able to score runs and, mentally, be able to compete more until we get it going."
Lovelady admitted he could feel that his batters were pressing in the late innings versus the Hatters. But don't expect any changes to the Knights' usual lineup; the head coach stressed that it's too early for panic four games into a 55-plus-game season.
"We're on the doorstep," he said. "We've just got to break through. Once that happens, hopefully the floodgates open. Until then, we've got to fight and figure it out."
Ward remarked the team is staying positive as well: "Things will turn for us, we know they will," he said Tuesday.
Greg Lovelady reacts to today's loss to Samford. He puts much of the onus on the offense, which didn't do much outside of when Sanford was throwing the ball into left field. #UCF pic.twitter.com/lNZJuHBmQU— Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy) February 18, 2018
Anthony George, the Knights' best defensive catcher, needs about 10-14 days to recover from the sprained knee he suffered Saturday. Lovelady said this week that George doesn't need surgery. Fortunately, catcher is a position where the Knights have the depth to withstand an injury. In the junior's absence, Beaver and senior Logan Heiser will continue to see time behind the plate.
The Knights will open a three-game series against the Savannah State tonight at home. UCF's weekend rotation will be no different from last weekend: Chris Williams on Friday, Sheridan on Saturday, Spicer on Sunday. The visiting Tigers come to Orlando with a 2-2 record after games against Delaware State and Charleston Southern. The Tigers have won just 12 games in each of the past two seasons.