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UCF Baseball Notebook: H-Town Showdown

THE HOUSTON COUGARS ARE THE HOTTEST TEAM IN THE AAC

Chris Williams and UCF Baseball will go toe-to-toe with the hottest team in the American this weekend. (Photo: Derek Warden)
Chris Williams and UCF Baseball will go toe-to-toe with the hottest team in the American this weekend. (Photo: Derek Warden)

UCF Baseball has a very tough and important series on tap for this weekend.

Wait, wait. Let's just get this out of the way: The Knights, at 30-15 overall and 9-9 in conference, currently carry an RPI of 35. For all intents and purposes, they are out of the AAC regular-season title race as they sit four games behind the Houston Cougars. But with fewer than three weeks and only 11 games left before the conference tournament, UCF is on the NCAA Tournament bubble, and eight of their final 11 games will come against teams that are either nationally ranked and/or have a top-40 RPI currently.

So, every series -- every game -- UCF Baseball plays from here on out will be important and tough. This three-game set versus those Cougars is just next in line.

Monkey off the Back

You never want to overrate one regular-season baseball game. However, it's also difficult to overstate the must-win feel surrounding UCF's rubber-match battle versus Wichita State last Sunday, especially since the Knights had squandered two of their past three conference series. UCF, per usual, took the opener on Friday night only to see the Shockers get even Saturday. Head coach Greg Lovelady made it very clear prior to the weekend's first pitch that he was Done with seeing this team lose series finales as it had in four of its five ACC sets. Yes, this was a critical game.

The Knights flipped their usual Sunday script, winning 8-4. Lovelady said he has previously seen his players put too much pressure on themselves to perform on Sundays following their Saturday losses, which only compounded the problem. Last Sunday, he saw a much more relaxed group and it paid off.

"I thought they were focused," Lovelady said. "I thought they were very mentally tough and on-point with where they needed to be."

UCF kept the good feelings going Tuesday night by defeating Florida Atlantic in extra innings, 2-1. Junior Tyler Osik played the role of hero with a walk-off single.

Joe Sheridan Update

Most every Knight knows their role by this point in the season. But going into last weekend, no one really knew what to make of starting pitcher Joe Sheridan. After not pitching for more than two weeks due to an apparent mixture of mechanical issues and fatigue, Sheridan returned to the mound Sunday against the Shockers. His 4.2 innings of work were rather uneven as the sophomore struck out five but also walked five. Yet, Lovelady didn't put too much emphasis on the box score when assessing Sheridan's return. He considered it a step in the right direction because of how Sheridan worked himself out of some jams.

"His strength is competitiveness," Lovelady said of Sheridan. "... Just being able to go out there and compete and have that bravado and that body language that says, 'I'm coming after you.' I didn't see that in the last start or two from him. Sunday, I saw that. He didn't have his best stuff, but he had the compete mode on."

Sheridan will be back in the rotation this Sunday versus the Houston Cougars.

He is Always On

Rylan Thomas is in the middle of one of the best offensive seasons in UCF Baseball history. We'll see where he stacks up at the end of the year, but we can already say that, in one aspect, he is the best in program history.

It took until the 10th inning Tuesday night, but Thomas' late walk versus FAU extended his single-season streak of consecutive games on base to a school-record 45 straight. That surpassed the previous program high of 44, set by Kiko Vazquez. Thomas still has a little ways to go in order to catch Vasquez's mark for the longest on-base streak all-time at UCF: 65 consecutive games, set between 2007-09. Thomas is currently at 53 games, dating back to last season.

"It's all a result of trying to do my job and help my team win," the soft-spoken Thomas said last month about his standout 2018 thus far. "There's nothing else to it other than just trying to be the best team guy that I can."

Thomas' 45-game streak is also the longest in American Athletic Conference history as well.

Alejo Honored

The man typically in front of Thomas in the Knights' lineup is getting his fair share of acclaim this week. Redshirt sophomore Ray Alejo was named to the AAC Honor Roll for his performances last week, going 5-for-11 with five runs, three RBIs and two stolen bases.

Making contact is always key for Alejo because if he can just get on base, he can create run-scoring opportunities with his legs. Alejo was striking out in more than 35 percent of his at-bats earlier in this season, but over the past month, his K rate has fallen to a more manageable 26 percent.

"I'm just seeing the ball really well," Alejo said of his recent success. "Me and Rylan, we come in really early before games and just work on a lot of things with our swing. It's been showing off on the field. ... I have a lot of confidence in my swing right now."

That confidence is helping Alejo get on base, something he's been doing well more than 40 percent of the time over the past month. Once there, he showcases his best skill: speed. Alejo has 22 SBs this season, second on the team to Matthew Mika's 24. Those two are the main reasons why the Knights rank tied for fifth in the nation with 91 steals.

Who's faster between the two of them? Well, Alejo seems pretty confident.

AAC Baseball Moves Up

Forget about #POW6R. The American is unquestionably powerful in baseball.

"We're not just, 'Oh, it's the American Conference.' It is the American Conference," Alejo said.

Five of its nine teams have an RPI of 40 or better. Earlier this week, the AAC moved up to third in the country in conference RPI (it slipped back to fourth behind the ACC on Wednesday). To put that in perspective. the AAC had the third-best RPI of any conference in basketball this past season. And depending on which site you use, either the Big 12 or the ACC was considered the third-best football conference last year. The AAC is on that level on the diamond. Just so you know.

Hot, Hot Houston

The Houston Cougars are not one of those five teams inside the top 40; they have a current RPI of 58. But don't let that fool you; the Cougars are one of the hottest teams in all of college baseball. Houston has won seven consecutive conference games, including sweeps of the Shockers and on the road versus No. 7 East Carolina. They have catapulted themselves to the top of the table in the AAC with a 13-5 mark, two full games ahead of South Florida. The Cougars are now ranked in multiple national polls and have gone 6-1 this year against squads with a top-25 RPI.

What stands out? You don't want to overlook the reigning AAC Player of the Week, second baseman Connor Hollis. But it's the Cougars' pitching that deserves the most ink.

"Those weekend arms of theirs are really special," Lovelady said.

Got that right. Friday night starter Trey Cumbie was the AAC's Preseason Pitcher of the Year. His current ERA is about 1.5 runs higher than where it was at the end of 2017, when he was an All-American. But with a .199 batting average against and an 84:15 strikeout-to-walk ratio through 71.2 frames, Cumbie has actually been more dominant in 2018.

And then there's the Cougars' Saturday starter, Aaron Fletcher. He was Houston's closer last season, and it's an understatement to say his adjustment in going from the bullpen to the rotation has been smooth. No AAC pitcher has a better ERA in conference action than Fletcher's 1.69. He has struck out 40 and walked just five in 42.2 AAC innings.

"He's probably going to win pitcher of the year as a Saturday guy," Lovelady said of Fletcher.

The head coach continued: "It's going to be a good challenge for us. But that's what I told the guys today at practice. That's what you come here for. These are the games, these are the weekends that get you excited to play. Know that there's a lot on the line and that this is what you're going to be talking about in 20 years. ... This is why you come to UCF."

The Knights' final regular-season series out of Florida begins tonight at 7:30 and will be shown live on Facebook via the American Digital Network. Saturday's game will start at 7:30 as well. Sunday's finale is set for a 2 p.m. first pitch.