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UCF Baseball Notebook: Out of the Cold

KNIGHTS BEGIN AAC SERIES VERSUS FIRST-PLACE CINCINNATI TONIGHT

Joe Sheridan Baseball
Joe Sheridan will toe the rubber in tonight's series opener against Cincinnati. (Photo: Derek Warden)

The Miami Hurricanes' baseball program isn't quite what it used to be. The Canes are on their way to missing the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year after being a part of it every season since 1973. Still, beating Miami in Miami means something, and if you don't believe that, just take a look at how UCF closer Bryce Tucker reacted after Wednesday's final out.

He almost knocked Logan Heiser's head off.

The win made everyone happy, but head coach Greg Lovelady said his guys were also excited to just play in nice weather again.

Winter in April at UConn

An outlier. That's how Lovelady described last weekend's three-game set at UConn, a series which was rescheduled twice -- once due to snow, once due to darkness -- and where every first pitch came in sub-40-degree weather. The mercury dropped even into the 20s at some points. After winning a wild series opener Saturday, 10-8, The Knights committed seven errors in the first game of a Sunday doubleheader and then lost the finale on a walk-off wild pitch. Lovelady said the poor defense was "100 percent" due to the conditions and also mentioned how his pitchers often couldn't get a good feel for the ball in the cold.

"Really not a good situation. I'm not really sure we should have played," Lovelady said. "Just too cold. ... I think the guys just weren't prepared. You can't prepare for that. It just snowballed on us."

The bad news: Those games still count, and UCF is now 4-5 in the American, two games out of first place.

The good news: Nineteen of the team's remaining 22 regular-season games will be played in Florida. The other three games will come from Houston. Suffice it to say that snow will not be an issue the Knights have to deal with again this year.

Seeing Cincy

The Cincinnati Bearcats are not a great statistical team on paper. In the nine-team AAC, they ranked fifth or lower in hits, batting average, runs scored, on-base plus slugging percentage, earned run average and strikeouts. Their 175 RPI is the second-worst in the American (UCF's RPI is 53). However, this series takes on a lot of importance given that the Bearcats are tied atop the AAC standings at 6-3. This weekend presents the Knights with a great opportunity to make some much-needed gains in the standings prior to seemingly tougher tests against South Florida and Wichita State. The Knights lead the all-time series between these two programs, 9-4, and will send out their regular weekend rotation of Joe Sheridan, Chris Williams and JJ Montgomery. While UCF's pitching has encountered a few bumps in the road during conference play, those three play a big part in the fact that UCF's 3.05 total ERA ranks 16th out of 297 Divison I teams.

No Doubting Thomas

Rylan Thomas is one of the nation's best hitters and is in the midst of one of the best offensive seasons in UCF Baseball history. Case in point, he ranks among the top 10 nationally in batting average (.422) and on-base percentage (.519). Both numbers would fit inside the program's single-season top 10. He's authoritatively backing up his preseason selection as the conference's player of the year and was recently named a midseason second-team All-American by Perfect Game/Rawlings.

Just don't expect Thomas to do any gloating. The soft-spoken sophomore says his 2018 numbers are "all a result of trying to just do my job and help my team win." Winning is his chief goal; the stats seem meaningless. Yet, that doesn't make the numbers he is putting up any less ridiculous. Thomas has an OPS near 1.200 and has reached base in 47 consecutive games dating back to last season. And like all great hitters, he has done whatever possible to eliminate the holes in his game.

Last season, Thomas struck out an all-time program record 86 times. He said that although swinging often last year "helped me do some good things" -- like end up on numerous freshman All-American lists -- Thomas wanted to become a more patient hitter this year. He wanted to drive more balls to the opposite field. We're seeing both bear out as Thomas has walked 25 times this season, already 10 more walks than he recorded all of last year. He's also cut down his strikeout rate from 36.7 percent to 24.2 percent, and most of his eight homers have gone either to center field or right field.

"He's obviously really gifted and he really cares, which is a big deal, and he works really hard," Lovelady said of Thomas. "But just the ability to learn how to hit. Last year, he was kind of free-swinger. Obviously, he had the power and all that kind of stuff that could put the fear in people, but this year, he's been a much more complete hitter, willing to take his walks, understanding what people are trying to do to him. He has a much better approach at the plate. Pitch recognition is better. Strike zone discipline is a whole lot better. ... I still feel like he is scratching the surface of what he can be, so it's going to be exciting to see him grow the next couple of years."

'90s Wrestling Knight

Lest we forget, tonight is '90 Wrestling Knights at John Euliano Park. And it is quite impossible to forget that if you follow UCF Baseball on Twitter because that account has been promoting it to the hilt this week. I wrote about Lovelady's life-long wrestling fandom last week and although he won't be involved in any of the shenanigans tonight, it should be a fun atmosphere.

First pitch for the Friday night opener is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Saturday's game will also begin at 6:30, and Sunday's game is slated to begin at noon.