Today would have been Selection Monday in college baseball. In each of the past two years on this day, the UCF Knights were among the first five out, a woebegone group of teams that saw the door to the NCAA Tournament close right in their face.
In 2020, the Knights looked set to break that door down. They won 15 of 18 games, including a road sweep of a top-10 team from the SEC. They reached never-before-seen heights in the polls. They were driven by one of the best pitching staffs in the nation and a pretty deep lineup.
And then, well, you know what happened. So, it’s now Reflection Monday. Here is a look back at some of the best that UCF baseball provided in 2020.
UCF’s most dramatic game of the year was probably its series opener at No. 8 Auburn on Feb. 21. Colton Gordon out-pitched a likely first-round MLB Draft pick, Tanner Burns, and the Knights’ bullpen posted three innings of scoreless ball in a 3-1 victory.
But I think the game of the year happened two days later. It wasn’t much of a game at all — it was pretty much over by the sixth inning — but in their 12-2 beatdown to finish off the sweep of the Tigers, I think Knights made the leap from being an interesting team to watch to bona fide national contender.
They had already clinched the series the night before, thereby surpassing probably all expectations but their own. But the Knights came out that Sunday and recorded season-highs in runs (12), hits (17) and extra-base hits (6). UCF was the better team that weekend and departed leaving absolutely zero doubt. That Sunday performance was a declaration: These Knights weren’t just focused on beating their opponents but dominating them.
Best Single-Game Performance by a Player
Plenty of worthy candidates here, including that start by Gordon at Auburn.
Trevor Holloway strikes out 10 over 6.2 innings in a shutout of Butler.
You could choose either Dalton Wingo or Pablo Ruiz in two separate games: Each man had four hits in that blowout of Auburn. Then on March 3 vs. Jacksonville, Wingo went 4-for-4 while Ruiz smashed two homers.
Joe Sheridan, also in that Auburn finale, threw five innings of one-run ball in just his second start following a 20-month layoff due to left shoulder surgery.
Jordan Rathbone’s three hits and four RBIs versus Cal State Northridge on Feb. 28.
They’re all good; choose whichever you like. My pick is from that same CSUN game and was orchestrated by center fielder Gephry Pena. He went 3-for-4, reached base four times, drove in three runs and scored three more. He also stole a base and played good defense to preserve a tied ballgame:
No run! ❌— UCF Baseball (@UCF_Baseball) February 29, 2020
Pena cuts off the ball in the gap and Brait throws out the batter at second to end the inning before the run scores! Still 4-4 in the fifth
Perhaps the most notable part of that play is what you don’t see. Just a moment prior to that, Pena was lying motionless in center field. He tried to make a diving catch to rob the previous batter, came up empty and knocked the wind out of himself. He was down on the grass for about 30 seconds.
But he stays in the game, and the next pitch demands him to cut the ball off and make an on-target relay throw to shortstop Andrew Brait. It was the best unheralded play I saw this season.
Best Position Player
This is a tie between Rathbone and Pena, both of whom hit better than .300. If you favor a run-producing bat in the middle of the lineup, Rathbone provided with his team-leading 17 RBIs and .507 slugging percentage. Pena did his job as the leadoff man; namely, get on base. He registered a .415 on-base percentage and finished among the nation’s top 10 with 13 steals in 14 attempts.
Pena’s defense probably gives him the edge, but regardless, each man’s success is a feel-good story. Last season, Pena was basically a pinch-running specialist. Rathbone played in 11 of 58 games. They combined for just 32 at-bats, and neither man hit .200.
This season, they were arguably the two best position players on a top-15 team.
The Knights’ pitching staff led the American Athletic Conference in ERA, WHIP and fewest hits allowed per nine innings. Five of their arms had a sub-2.50 ERA with at least 10 innings pitched.
My pick here is someone who didn’t reach double digits, but in only 8.1 innings, closer Jeffrey Hakanson put up some truly ridiculous numbers.
He locked down six saves, tied for the most in the country. That’s fine and dandy, but consider this:
In his 8.1 innings, Hakanson faced 28 batters and struck out 20 of them. Only two batters hit the ball out of the dang infield — a fly out to right versus Stetson on Feb. 18 and a single to left field against CSUN on March 1. That was the only hit Hakanson allowed.
About a week later, head coach Greg Lovelady said of Hakanson’s year to date: “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it at this level, that kind of dominance,”
Coupling a mid-90s fastball with a sharp, controlled slider, Hakanson was must-watch stuff.
Nick Gottilla threw 6.1 hitless innings out of the bullpen. Hunter Patteson got three starts and showed why he can be a Friday pitcher in the years to come. Matt Archer hit .291 while playing at multiple spots on the infield. Andrew Brait earned nine starts at shortstop.
UCF received significant contributions from a bunch of freshmen this year. But the star of the bunch was Pablo Ruiz. He hit .275 and with three homers — tied with Rathbone and Tom Josten for the team-high. But even more than his on-field ability, teammates and coaches have mentioned Ruiz’s endless energy on the diamond, his zest for the game and his natural self-confidence. Although it was just a small sample, Ruiz possesses face-of-the-program qualities.
“He’s going to be so, so good,” Lovelady said of Ruiz on March 1. “... As good as he is right now, there’s so much more left in him. It’s going to be fun to watch him the next couple of years.”
Back once again to that Sunday at Auburn, which contained the one play that comes to my mind immediately whenever I think about this season: Tom Josten’s swing ‘n’ skip homer. Strength and swag. He had no doubt.
The best uniform of the year was the one every player wanted the honor of wearing each game: The Skinner 38.
For the past few seasons, the Knights hanged Joe Skinner’s No. 38 jersey in their dugout. This year, with no player sporting 38 on the roster, they brought it onto the field with them. Getting to don the 38 was a reward for a standout performance in the previous game. But more importantly, it was the most poignant and creative on-field tribute yet to a UCF commit who would have been a senior in 2020.
No one on the Knights' roster is listed as No. 38. But this season, the best player from the previous game will wear that jersey in honor of Joe Skinner, a #UCF commit who passed away in 2016 after battling leukemia.— Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy) February 17, 2020
Here, Lovelady talks about the importance of this tribute. pic.twitter.com/C99LS9RtXt
Thirteen different Knights wore the 38 this season. Gordon, Holloway, Rathbone, Hakanson and pitcher Jaylyn Whitehead each wore it twice.
This quote came on March 10, the day before UCF’s home game versus the Miami Hurricanes. I had to miss that game, so this media availability was the last time I got to speak with any of the players in person. This is how the season ended for me.
It’s a quote from outfielder Dalton Wingo, speaking frankly about UCF’s desire to not only reach the College World Series but win it all:
#UCF narrowly missed the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons. Beating No. 5 Miami tonight would definitely help their odds of making or possibly hosting a regional.— Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy) March 11, 2020
But that isn't UCF's ultimate goal.
Outfielder Dalton Wingo: "We want to go to Omaha and we want to win Omaha." pic.twitter.com/yUdKrM3zOQ
The college baseball season was effectively shut down 48 hours later.
If the Knights had remained on their early-season course, yeah, we may have found out today that they are hosting an NCAA regional for the first time in program history. It would have been a huge milestone. But from before the first pitch of the 2020 season, they had their sights set on greater goals. Goals forever unrealized through no fault of their own.