Just as soon as two weeks ago, any discussion regarding UCF baseball and the NCAA Tournament felt like a waste of time.
The Knights were in the midst of losing five of six games, including a series-turning, walk-off loss at Cincinnati. As of April 25, they were 5-10 in the American Athletic Conference, besieged by pitching injuries and dealing with an inconsistent offense. UCF watched its RPI dropped from the teens into 70s with time running out.
But the Knights have made the most of these past couple of weeks, tearing off victories in seven of their past nine contests, including an impressive series win last weekend at Tulane, the current No. 2 team in the AAC. The Green Wave boast one of the best offenses in the nation, but UCF pitching — especially starters Chris Williams and Jordan Spicer — held Tulane to just 10 runs over those three games.
UCF then practically saved its season Tuesday night by erasing a 5-0 deficit versus a bad Bethune Cookman team with a five-run eighth inning in a 6-5 comeback triumph.
Lovelady said that during the game he didn't think about what a loss to Bethune Cookman would to #UCF's RPI, but he was frank about it afterward.— Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy) May 8, 2019
"This probably would have ended our at-large hopes."
Yes, it would have ....
The Wildcats, with their RPI of 269, are so bad that the Knights’ RPI actually slumped a few spots despite the win, from 54 to 57.
But that win keeps the NCAA conversation relevant heading into tonight’s truly pivotal matchup with the Miami Hurricanes in Coral Gables. The Hurricanes sit 12th in the RPI. They have won six games in a row and are ranked 20th by DI Baseball.
Win tonight, and now we can really start delving into bubble watch for the Knights. They would still have plenty of work to do and a handful of quality opponents left on the schedule, including at FAU next week (RPI 36) and a regular-season finale home series against Houston (RPI 38). But the Knights possibly won’t have a better opportunity to make a statement than tonight.
“It would be huge,” freshman catcher and Tuesday night hero Ben McCabe said about a win over Miami. “Obviously, toward the end of the season, trying to make a run at the playoffs (NCAA tourney), getting that win ... would be huge.”
BOO YEAH BENNY— UCF Baseball (@UCF_Baseball) May 8, 2019
Bases-clearing double gives us a 6-5 lead in the eighth. pic.twitter.com/h5JX3LDUhn
Added head coach Greg Lovelady: “It’s a really big game. [Miami is] playing really, really well, and we’ve got to do a good job. We’ve had success against them, but this is obviously a much different team.”
Lovelady, a UM alum, has beaten his alma mater in their own ballpark in each of the past two seasons. But those Hurricanes squads had to fight just to finish above .500. This year’s edition is 34-14 and on track to host an NCAA Regional in a few weeks.
However, the upcoming schedule — or lack thereof — kind of works in UCF’s favor tonight. After a regularly scheduled series versus Dayton fell through during the preseason, the Knights actually have a rare bye week ahead of them. After tonight, their next game won’t come until May 14 against the Owls. That means basically every UCF pitcher, including Williams and Friday night starter Grant Schuermann, will be available to go tonight. Lovelady said Tuesday that he would like to use those two men for a few innings each before turning it over to his bullpen. That includes closer Kyle Kemp, who will also be on call despite spending some bullets to get the save Tuesday night.
One player who won't be available -- and who hasn't been available since April 28 vs. Memphis -- is Jeffrey Hakanson.— Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy) May 8, 2019
Hakanson has a lat strain, per Lovelady. They expect him back, but he won't pitch at Miami. #UCF
A loss to Miami wouldn’t deal a knockout blow, but it would essentially make UCF’s margin of error for the NCAA Tournament about the width of a bee’s wing. You figure they would have to top Florida Atlantic and take at least two of three from Houston next week, followed by a couple of wins in the conference tournament down in Clearwater.
Hell, the Knights might still have to do all of that even if they are victorious tonight. Yet their postseason outlook becomes undoubtedly brighter if they are indeed victorious tonight. That UCF is in this position after where it was just a short time ago is surprising, but the Knights seem to be playing their best baseball as they come down the season’s home stretch.