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UCF Baseball Notebook: A Crucial War on I-4

KNIGHTS WILL FACE A FUTURE TOP MLB DRAFT PICK ON FRIDAY

Rylan Thomas, seen here a split-second before hitting a tiebreaking homer versus Cincinnati on April 13, will lead the Knights into this weekend's critical series at USF. (Photo: Brian Murphy)
Rylan Thomas, seen here a split-second before hitting a tiebreaking homer versus Cincinnati on April 13, will lead the Knights into this weekend's critical series at USF. (Photo: Brian Murphy)

The UCF Baseball team was eager to get back on the field Wednesday night versus Bethune-Cookman. They had to do something to wash out of the taste of letting a series sweep slip away last weekend.

After winning the first two games against Cincinnati, the Knights squandered a 6-2 lead in the eighth inning Sunday and fell 9-6. Claiming a series had never felt so empty, and the impact of that loss is clearly evident in the American Athletic Conference standings. The Knights sit in sixth place at 6-6 (26-12 overall). However, they are just one game out of first, which is currently a three-way tie between USF, Houston and Cincinnati at 7-5. With a month remaining in the regular season, it's blatantly obvious that every game in the AAC is important from here on out.

The Knights did take care of business Wednesday, easily dispatching Bethune-Cookman, 7-1. It was a good rebound, but it won't matter a lick without some positive results this weekend in Tampa as the Knights and the Bulls (24-13 overall) rekindle the War on I-4.

Rotation Shake-up

The main storylines in this series are all about pitching. For the Knights, their starting pitching is slightly discombobulated right now. Sophomore Joe Sheridan, who has been the team's Friday night starter in conference action, will not start this weekend, head coach Greg Lovelady announced Wednesday.

Sheridan, a preseason all-conference selection, has walked 13 batters in his last 11.2 innings, and Lovelady was concerned with how tentative he appeared on the mound in his most recent start, a forgettable 2.1-inning, three-run no-decision versus Cincy in which Sheridan had a difficult time spotting any pitch for strikes. Lovelady hopes the time off will help and said he doesn't think Sheridan is hiding any physical ailment.

Lovelady momentarily considered moving Chris Williams into the Friday night spot but decided against it after Williams pitched on Sunday two weeks and then on Saturday against the Bearcats. The head coach simply didn't want to keep pushing Williams up a day. The junior leads all UCF starters with a 1.87 ERA.

Tonight will mark Cre Finfrock's third start of the year. The Knights have been bringing him along slowly after he missed the 2017 season following Tommy John surgery, but since he threw 82 pitches in a five-inning, no-hit start at Miami last week, Lovelady thinks Finfrock will be able to throw 90-95 pitches tonight, assuming all goes well during the game.

"If I can get 5 or 6 out of him, that would be awesome," Lovelady said of Finfrock. "I don't expect to get a [complete game] out of him just because he hasn't run it up to 115 or anything like that."

If something goes awry, Thad Ward will be available for an elongated outing to eat up innings. Minus a brutal appearance at Memphis in which he permitted seven runs in less than an inning, Finfrock has a 1.64 ERA through 22 innings. The Knights sit 12th in the nation and at the top of the AAC in team ERA at 3.10.

Best vs. Best

While UCF fans will be curious to see how Finfrock responds in his return to the Friday night stage, basically everyone else, including many people in Major League front offices, will be watching every movement from his opposition, USF redshirt sophomore Shane McClanahan.

McClanahan, a preseason All-American and Golden Spikes watch list selection, is projected to be a top-10 pick in this June's MLB draft. However, McClanahan's season has been far from pristine, especially lately. He has given up 18 earned runs and 16 walks in his last 19.2 innings. Still, he has struck out 84 batters in 50.1 innings and can keep hitters off balance by mixing his mid-90s fastball with a slider and impressive changeup. Opponents have just a .169 batting average against him. Lovelady hasn't seen much of McClanahan this year, but he knows tonight's game is going to be a big test for his offense.

"Last year, he was really more of just a fastball guy," Lovelady said of McClanahan. "He would show the breaking ball but just struggled with it, so he really did a good job this offseason working on the offspeed. I heard it's a tick better and a lot better strikes with it. It just adds another pitch to 93-98 fastball from the left side. It will be a good challenge. He's got a chance to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft or a top-five pick. So, it will be a good challenge for us, but he's 4-4, so he's been beat before."

McClanahan's showdowns with UCF sophomore slugger Rylan Thomas should be fascinating. Thomas' lone hit Wednesday night was a solo homer, and he now heads into this weekend with a .413 batting average and a .508 on-base percentage. Both numbers rank inside the nation's top-15 among Division I batters.

Players of the Week

While the season has generally belonged to Thomas at the plate, last week was all about Tyler Osik. He batted .500, homered in each game versus Cincy and drove in a whopping 13 runs during the Knights' four matchups last week. That moved him ahead of Thomas as the team's RBI leader and made him a well-deserved pick as AAC Player of the Week.

"I'm just trying to get pitches up in the zone that I can do damage with," Osik said Sunday. "Luckily, I've been taking the bad pitches and trying to hunt the good ones."

Osik (45) and Thomas (44) both sit inside the country's top 20 in RBIs.

A USF player was tabbed as AAC Pitcher of the Week, but it wasn't McClanahan. The honor went to senior Peter Strzelecki after he tossed a five-hit complete game in the Bulls' victory over No. 7 East Carolina on Saturday. This weekend, he will match up with Williams, who was named to the conference's weekly honor roll for his eight innings of two-run ball versus the Bearcats.

USF junior third baseman David Villar was also on the honor roll as he hit .467 last week. Villar paces the Bulls in numerous offensive categories, including hits, runs, RBIs, batting average and on-base percentage. He's a chief reason why USF is the American's highest-scoring team and tied with Wichita State for the best batting average in the conference at an even .300.

The War on 1-4

No one should say that the rivalry between USF and UCF in baseball runs as deeply as it does in football. But there is a little something there, even with Lovelady's demands to his players to always play against ball, not the jersey. Those players still know that it's a skosh different when these two programs meet.

"Love always talks about having a faceless opponent; it doesn't matter who it is, you go out there and play the same way. It's kind of hard to when you're playing USF," sophomore Dallas Beaver said. The rivalry between our two schools, it's always a great atmosphere whether it's here or there."

Beaver is also certain the Bulls haven't forgotten about how the Knights beat them in Orlando on the last day of the 2017 regular season to win the conference championship.

"I'm sure they are eager to get back out on the field against us," he said.

Tonight's first pitch is scheduled for 7 while tomorrow's is set for 6:30. The Sunday afternoon finale will begin at 1. The games on Friday and Sunday will be broadcast on FM 96.9/AM 740 in Orlando.