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UCF Baseball Notebook: As the Starting Rotation Turns

KNIGHTS OPEN 3-GAME SERIES VS. WICHITA STATE ON FRIDAY

UCF Baseball
The UCF Baseball team hopes to do plenty of celebrating this weekend against Wichita State. (Photo: Derek Warden)

The UCF Baseball team is 4-0 in series-opening confernce games this season but just 1-3 immediately following those openers. And head coach Greg Lovelady has had it. He's not putting up with this any longer.

"I'm sick and tired of losing on Saturday after winning on Fridays," he said. "... I'm not going to deal with that."

Thus, although it's a cliche, Lovelady is truly taking it one game at a time. That's why he has yet to name a starting pitcher for Sunday's series finale versus Wichita State. Before he gets to Sunday, he wants to do anything and everything possible to claim the first two games of the series and not let another weekend go by where the Knights are left feeling disappointed.

So, Who's on the Mound?

In short:

Cre Finfrock and Chris Williams are the obvious choices. The former is the reigning AAC Pitcher of the Week. The latter has a 2.10 ERA through 64.1 innings this season. Lovelady has "TBA" listed on Sunday because he realizes he may need to use a possible starter for that game earlier in the weekend in order to get the series. Those possibilities include JJ Montgomery, Joe Sheridan, Thad Ward and Jordan Spicer. Whoever isn't used in the first two games will probably get the Sunday start, and odds are you will see more than one of those names participate in the finale. It's all very fluid.

But Lovelady did say he expects Sheridan, the Knights' previous Friday night starter in conference, to see action versus the Shockers either as a starter or a reliever. He hasn't pitched since April 13 due to what the team has generally labeled as fatigue.

"I think he's fine," Lovelady said of Sheridan, who was available but not used out of the bullpen for last Sunday's game at South Florida. "He feels good now. I think a couple days off just kind of gave him the rest that he needed."

Giving Cre-dence

The Knights had a plan for Cre Finfrock this season. With him coming off of major shoulder surgery*, they wanted to work him back in slowly, using him as a reliever early on and then building up his stamina in order to turn him back into the starter he was in 2015 and 2016. In one aspect, that plan has worked perfectly as Finfrock has been one of UCF's best arms all season, no matter if he's on the mound in the first inning or the seventh. The difference is that Finfrock has returned from a full year off better than ever.

"It's the best I've ever pitched," he said. "I kind of feel like I found a groove on the mound."

It's quite a groove. Finfrock has al8lowed no runs and just one hit over his last two starts (11 innings). He struck out 15 batters in that span. He outdueled USF's Shane McClanahan, a future first-rounder in the MLB Draft, in the Knights' 1-0 victory in Tampa last Friday. That earned him AAC Pitcher of the Week honors, and this recent stretch helped him earn a spot in the weekend rotation that feels like a no-brainer. On the season, Finfrock owns a 3.45 ERA and has struck out 35 batters in 28.2 innings.

*I have written previously that Finfrock missed the 2017 season after undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery, not shoulder labrum surgery. I apologize for the error, but the reality makes Finfrock's comeback story even greater since there are fewer pitching success stories following labrum reconstruction compared to those who underwent Tommy John.

Finfrock says it's not a new pitch or anything mechanical that has enabled his hot streak. The biggest change for him as a pitcher has been more mental. Thanks to Lovelady's teachings, Finfrock says he has learned to not get too overwhelmed by a few bad pitches or some poor batted-ball luck. The game has slowed down for the junior. He's taking each pitch as it comes, not forgetting to insert deep breaths in between.

"Don't let anything affect you," he said.

Being too concerned about every development on the diamond was a problem for Finfrock not that long ago. However, Lovelady is pleased to see how quickly that has changed as the righthander has matured.

"Cre is a real emotional guy and there were some things early on in the year where it's like, 'Hey, man, I know you didn't pitch last year and maybe those things were acceptable in the past, but you need to be mentally tougher. You need to be able to handle failure. You need to be able to handle not everything going your way.'"

Finfrock has done that. Granted, it's been about three weeks since he's had to handle any real failure on the field. That's one reason why he is getting the ball Friday.

Scouting the Shockers

Wichita State comes to Orlando with an impressive RPI of 19 but a lackluster conference record at 4-8. The Shockers were swept by Houston last weekend and have dropped five of their last six games in the American. The Shockers' offense was quieted by the Cougars before busting out for 14 runs versus Kansas on Tuesday. For the season, Wichita State paces the AAC in batting average, runs scored and home runs. Third baseman Alec Bohm is the most dangerous bat in the lineup as he has slugged eight home runs and registered a 1.004 OPS. Along with shortstop Trey Vickers and outfielder Luke Ritter, the Shockers boast a trio each hitting .333 or better through 12 conference games.

Conversely, Wichita State has been really let down by its starting pitching during AAC play. The Shockers' three scheduled hurlers for this weekend -- Codi Heuer, Tyler Davis and Liam Eddy -- have posted a combined 6.20 ERA and 1.76 WHIP through nine conference starts.

Joe Skinner Knight

Friday night marks one of the most important and emotional evenings of the season. It's Joe Skinner Knight at the stadium. Skinner was a Bishop Moore senior and UCF Baseball signee when he passed away on April 30, 2016, due to a rare form of leukemia. The Knights will wear Skinner's name on the back of their jerseys during the game, but everyone can help honor Skinner by donating to the SkinnerStrong Foundation. All proceeds raised will go toward the effort to fight pediatric cancer. There will also be SkinnerStrong shirts available for purchase at the stadium. All sale monies will go to the foundation.

Wichita State and UCF will open their three-game set Friday night at 6:30 p.m. inside John Euliano Park. Saturday's game is also scheduled for 6:30 while Sunday's finale is slated to begin at noon.