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How No. 23 UCF Baseball Defeated No. 1 Florida Gators

TUESDAY'S WIN WAS THE PROGRAM'S FIRST OVER A TOP-RANKED TEAM

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The first pitch of what would conclude as a 9-7 win for UCF over No. 1 Florida on Tuesday. (Photo: Brian Murphy)

They left 15 men on base. They committed two errors. They trailed after the first pitch of the game. Their starting pitcher was able to command only half of his repertoire.

The UCF Baseball Team wasn't at its best Tuesday night, but they were still good enough to top the best team in the nation, No. 1 Florida Gators, 9-7.

"I told the guys I didn't think we played our best baseball tonight. We've just got to remember that," head coach Greg Lovelady said. "I think a lot of teams would come in and say 'We've got to be perfect in order to beat these guys,' and I thought it was a good lesson for us to know that we don't need our best stuff."

It marked the program's first triumph over a No. 1-ranked team in seven tries and extended UCF's winning streak to eight games. Here's what happened on a historic Tuesday night at John Euliano Park.

The third inning changed everything

The Knights apparently have a thing for big-inning comebacks. On Saturday, they posted an eight-run eighth inning versus Wagner to change an 8-2 deficit into a 10-8 advantage. Just three days later, UCF would enter the third inning versus the Gators trailing, 3-0. They would leave it leading, 6-3, and stayed in front for the duration.

Of course, putting up such an inning versus Wagner and the No. 1 team in the nation are two completely different entities.

The Gators came to Orlando with the country's third-best ERA (1.73) and the lowest runs-allowed average (2.00). They had given up a total of nine runs in their last five games. Florida starting pitcher Jack Leftwich had already posted two scoreless frames and it looked like he would roll through the third. Then with two outs, the floodgates opened.

Seven consecutive Knights reached base. Four singles and three walks equaled six runs and flipped the entire complexion of the game.

"That six-run inning was huge because it pretty much just put a dent in the whole game and kind of gave [Florida] less life," outfielder Tyler Osik said.

In the end, UCF tallied each of its nine runs while there were two outs. The team went 7-for-13 in situations with runners in scoring position and two outs.

"If you have a strike, an out left, you've got a chance," Lovelady said. "... It shows that we've got some guys that want to compete, don't want to give up and don't want to give away outs."

A couple of new faces led the offense

Every Knight in the lineup Tuesday either got a hit or scored a run. But it was a couple of transfers from Chipola Junior College who really led the charge. Outfielders Osik and Brody Wofford combined to go 7-for-10 at the plate with seven RBIs.

The major question with the Knights' offense, really since day one, has been: How quickly will the new players acclimate to playing Division I baseball? The growing pains have certainly been there in the early going, especially for Wofford, who came into this game batting .125 with zero RBIs in 24 at-bats. He drove in three versus the Gators and doubled his season hit total with three singles.

Lovelady has preached patience to those newcomers. Relax. Don't panic. Now, he can see players such as Osik and Wofford becoming more comfortable as they get more games under their belt.

Montgomery battled into the sixth

Sometimes, you just don't have it. Starting pitcher JJ Montgomery has been dominant this season, but he knew he didn't have it early on Tuesday.

"Even in the bullpen, I could tell you that it was not going to be a good day for my offspeed stuff," he said.

Montgomery has a four-pitch mix -- fastball, slider, curveball, changeup -- but was forced to lean primarily on the first two as he said his curveball wasn't moving at all and his changeup was merely OK at times. He hung one changeup to Florida's Keenan Bell with two men on in the sixth inning. Montgomery estimated that ball traveled 450 feet out to right field. Even if he was being facetious, he's not that far off.

However, Montgomery's outing was a microcosm of the Knights' overall evening as he was able to win without having his best. He racked up eight strikeouts in 5.1 innings against the Gators, a team that averages just 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings.

"When you don't have your best stuff and you're still competing and doing well, it makes you think, 'If I did have my best stuff, what would happen?'" Montgomery said. "I don't know, I can't tell you what would have happened because I didn't have it. But it probably would have been a lot better."

Even after permitting five earned runs, Montgomery's ERA is just 2.50. He owns a 27:5 strikeout-to-walk ratio through 18 innings.

Westberg continued his quick ascension up the bullpen pecking order

Knights fans probably remember Rylan Thomas' walk-off homer vs. Wagner from Friday. The Knights entered that ninth inning trailing, 3-2. So, who got the rally started? Lovelady said that the rally actually didn't start in the bottom of the ninth, but rather in the top when Garrett Westberg threw a quick, clean frame to keep the margin at one.

The transfer from Tacoma Community College has made just four appearances with the Black and Gold, but it is beyond clear that Lovelady really trusts him right now. He stuck with Westberg to close out the Gators instead of going to Bryce Tucker, his preseason All-American closer. Even after Westberg gave up a ninth-inning home run with Tucker warming up in the bullpen, Lovelady let Westberg pick up the final two outs. The righty responded emphatically, getting Florida's No. 3 and No. 4 hitters to strike out looking.

"Garrett has been unbelievable in his outings," said Lovelady, who also recognized Westberg as a co-closer currently. "He's just incrementally gotten better."

What's next?

Want to know how much winning both ends of this home-and-home series with No. 1 Florida means to Lovelady and the Knights? Joe Sheridan, a weekend rotation staple and arguably the team's best starter last year as a freshman, will be on the mound tonight in Gainesville. UCF skipped his regular turn versus Wagner and instead opted to bring him out of the bullpen for 1.2 innings Friday in order to have him ready for this start.

The Knights beat the then-second-ranked Gators last year in Orlando, 11-2. Sheridan made his first career start on that night and tossed five innings of one-run ball en route to earning the W. Lovelady expects more of the same this evening.

"I expect Joe to be Joe," the head coach said. "He thrives in these types of situations."