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UCF Baseball Notebook: Sooners now; NCAAs Later?

Knights try to stay focused on the present while others predict their future

Matthew Mika and the UCF Baseball team will strive to improve their NCAA Tournament resume this weekend versus the Oklahoma Sooners. (Photo: Derek Warden)
Matthew Mika and the UCF Baseball team will strive to improve their NCAA Tournament resume this weekend versus the Oklahoma Sooners. (Photo: Derek Warden)

An NCAA Tournament berth is what the UCF Baseball team has wanted since the birth of their first thought of the 2018 season.

Well, actually, the NCAA Tournament is seen as more of a first step than the final destination. Back in February, when we met with these Knights prior to the start of the regular season, many of them had Omaha on their minds.

"Win a regional, win a super regional and eventually go to Omaha," relief pitcher Bryce Tucker said then about the team's 2018 aims. "If that's not the goal, then don't know why you're coming out here and playing."

The College World Series in Omaha is still beyond the horizon, but as we enter the final couple of weekends before the conference tournament, NCAA Tournament chatter is buzzing, and there are the Knights slotted as a No. 2 seed in a pair of projections released earlier this week. Feel free to gander at those best guesses; some Knights will admit they already have.

"We talk about it. We know it's there," center fielder Ray Alejo said.

Infielder Dallas Beaver added: "It's kind of hard not to pay attention to it. We try to just put it to the side, put our heads down and just work every day."

As much as they like seeing their name out there, the Knights are also quick to point out that much work does remain in order to make good on those projections. If they don't take care of business over their final seven regular-season games, beginning with a visit from the Oklahoma Sooners this weekend, these optimistic outlooks will mean zilch.

"The coaches have been talking this series and how every game is important," Beaver said. "Just because we're playing Oklahoma, a Big 12 team, it doesn't change our approach to the game."

Now Batting: The Starting Quarterback?

Oklahoma outfielder Kyler Murray is one of the most fascinating stories in college baseball. And college football. Pick one. Murray hasn't yet.

The redshirt sophomore has made huge gains on the diamond since 2017, raising his batting average from .122 to .288 and his slugging percentage from .122 to .509. Murray's improvement at the plate is more impressive when you consider that he is also in line to be Oklahoma's starting quarterback this fall, replacing Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick Baker Mayfield. That has certainly complicated Murray's schedule, but he seems fine with pulling double duty. All the while, scouts and coaches in both sports wait to see what Murray will do this summer: Return to school as a junior to further his dual-sport career and lead one of the best programs in college football or take his talents to MLB as a possible top-50 draft pick.

The Knights may be up to this weekend's task of taking down the Sooners, who come to Orlando with a current RPI of 40, nine spots behind UCF. But if a pickup football game suddenly breaks out, you'll have to give the edge to OU.

A Hole in the Middle

We've had plenty of questions over the past few weeks regarding starting pitcher Joe Sheridan's status. He walked four batters in 4.1 innings at Houston last Sunday and has now issued 22 walks through his last five starts. Yet, Lovelady expressed no concern about Sheridan's physical state this week -- "He's just working through some mechanical stuff" -- and the lefty will again be on the mound this Sunday.

There is, however, a question mark surrounding Chris Williams' health. He has been complaining of a sore shoulder for the past couple of weeks. He took his normal turn against the Cougars last Saturday but was pulled after just three innings in a move Lovelady said may have been premature, but "I just didn't really want to push him."

Williams has received treatment on his shoulder all week and after throwing a bullpen session Wednesday, the door is still open for him to start Saturday night. If he can't go, that gig will most likely be handed to either Thad Ward or J.J. Montgomery. Since Lovelady said he will use both men if necessary in order to win on Friday, don't expect a decision on that TBA slot to come until possibly Saturday morning.

Thad's All, Folks

Ward was a major reason why the Knights were able to claim the opening game against Houston. He closed out the 3-2 triumph with four innings of scoreless baseball, which included escaping a bases-loaded, no-out jam. The junior struck out seven and allowed just one hit and one walk. For his work, he was named American Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Week this Monday.

"It's nice to have. It's a pretty cool thing, but it’s not something we’re really trying hard to get," Ward said. He seemed to struggle to find the words to describe his thoughts about the award but ended up doing so in charmingly modest fashion.

"It's a nice compliment, but ... definitely a cool thing to get," he said. "Pretty awesome moment, but at the end of the day, I'm just trying to help my team."

Ward now boats a 2.81 ERA and has struck out 73 batters in 51.1 innings pitched. He has made five starts and said he will "definitely be ready" if called upon to fill in for Williams.

There is no list of candidates for each week's player honors, but if Ward wasn't tabbed as the pitcher of the week, the conference could just as easily have chosen Montgomery, who threw five innings of relief with seven Ks and no earned runs to help UCF sweep Saturday's doubleheader.

"It just gives us a huge shot in the arm, a huge sigh of relief knowing that no matter what the situation is, we can throw those guys in and kind of give ourselves a chance to win the game," Lovelady said of Ward and Montgomery.

Off and Running

Lovelady admitted during the preseason that Ray Alejo is one of the fastest players he has ever coached. Alejo has been showcasing that speed in bulk over the past two weeks. The Knights' center fielder has stolen 12 bases in the past seven games, including six steals in the past two. In each of those two games, Alejo tacked on a steal of home plate for good measure. This run, so to speak, has moved Alejo up to third in the nation with 31 SBs. He is also the first UCF player since 2005 to log at least 30 steals in a season.

Although Lovelady said he sometimes signals his players not to run in certain situations, he guessed this week that he's given any Knight the green light to run twice all season. He will let Alejo know, whenever the speedster is on third base, that if he wants to attempt a straight steal of home, he can. Without that permission, Alejo try won't such a risky maneuver. But the next time you see Alejo break for second or third base, know that he very likely made that decision independently.

Granted, some of Alejo's decisions earlier this season drove his head coach crazy.

"There were a lot of times early in the year when he was stealing bases and I was in the dugout like, 'Oh, my gosh. That was a horrible jump,'" the head coach said. "He just outran the baseball or [the opposition] screwed something up. He was just going on pure speed and just hoping that he can outrun it. Every single week, it just seems like he gets better and better at it."

All Good Things ...

How good has Rylan Thomas been this season? He is batting just .200 over his last nine games (7-for-35) with one extra-base hit. However, he still carries a .368 average, an 1.192 OPS and is tied with teammate Tyler Osik with an AAC-best 53 RBIs.

Thomas' slump hasn't cost him some gaudy stats, but it did cost him his on-base streak. By not reaching base Sunday at Houston, Thomas' school record of 47 consecutive games on base was snapped. Overall, he reached base in 55 straight games dating back to last season. That's 10 games shy of the UCF record set by Kiko Vazquez between 2007-09.

The Knights and Sooners will begin their three-game series tonight, with first pitch set for 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at John Euliano Park. The series will wrap up Sunday at 1 p.m.