The UCF Knights baseball team lost its four-game home series last weekend to Wichita State, 3-1, making it the team’s first series loss to a conference opponent this season.
The series loss stemmed from a recurring issue the Knights have had this season, a lack of starting pitching ability that forced the team to rely heavily on its bullpen, head coach Greg Lovelady said. To emphasize his point, Lovelady also said that 20 of Wichita State’s 31 runs throughout the series were allowed by Knights starting pitchers.
“It’s just really tough to win a four-game series or two games in a series when you get that kind of starting pitching and just ask a lot out of your bullpen and just stress the crap out of them,” Lovelady said.
It did not help the Knights pitchers were going against a lineup that had five of the top 20 individual batting averages in the American Athletic Conference. These five Shockers: 2B Jack Sigrist, C Ross Cadena, DH Hunter Gibson, 3B Paxton Wallace, and LF Corrigan Bartlett, accounted for 26 of the 31 runs Wichita State scored during the series.
However, most of these runs would end up being scored in the series’ final three games. For Game 1, the Knights would hold them in check.
FRIDAY: Knights Split a Double-Dip
Game 1 of the series marked the first time freshman pitcher Hunter Patteson took the mound as a starter since Mar. 13 and he took full advantage of it. In 5.1 innings of work, Patteson limited the Shockers to five hits, three runs, and struck out nine batters, the most he has had in a single game all season.
Lovelady said in a press conference after Game 3 that since the loss of starting pitcher Colton Gordon to a torn UCL, Patteson is now the best arm the team has.
“Just really proud of him for continuing to work,” Lovelady said.
As for starting pitcher Hunter Patteson, his 9 strikeouts today is the most he's had in a single game this season.— Bryson Turner (@itsBrysonTurner) May 7, 2021
He also only gave up 5 hits to the Shockers, and even though they got 3 runs, here's how they were scored:
Run 1: SAC Fly
Run 2: Home Run
Run 3: SAC line-out
Patteson’s performance would be supported by a duo of relief pitchers, Zack Hunsicker and Ben Vespi, who pitched the final 3.2 innings. The duo combined to allow only two hits and no runs.
Meanwhile, on the offensive side of the ball, Wichita State got ahead early, going into the bottom of the 5th inning with a 3-1 lead. However, a go-ahead three-run triple by 1B Ben McCabe would give the Knights the lead for the first time in the game, and they never lost hold of it.
The Knights would get their only win of the series against Wichita State in Game 1, 6-3.
Later in the day, in Game 2, the Wichita State’s offense struck early once again. However, it was able to be much more productive when they were receiving pitches from starting pitcher Kenny Serwa. Serwa pitched for 1.2 innings, allowing six hits and six runs.
While relief pitchers Zack Bennett, Billy McKay, and Nick Vieira would combine to pitch 5.1 innings and limit the Shockers to 1 run with 5 hits, the offense was not able to make up the early deficit due to being stymied by Wichita State’s Game 2 starter, Jace Kaminska. In 6.0 inning of work, Kaminska struck out 6 batters and only allowed five hits and one run.
“He just threw strikes, able to mix the fastball in and out, comes from a tough angle over on the third base side and we just didn’t have any answers for him,” Lovelady said.
The one run Kaminska gave up was a solo home run by DH Connor Allen, his first since Mar. 20.
While these factors would secure Wichita State’s first win of the series, the events of the bottom of the 8th inning would lead to the invocation ten-run rule. UCF relief pitcher Nolan Lepkoske allowed three home runs in the top of the 8th inning, two solo home runs and one two-run home run. This gave WSU an 11-1 lead after eight innings, which ended the game there.
SATURDAY: Wichita State 10, UCF 3
Game 3 had a very similar outcome as Game 2, but with a slightly different beginning.
Unlike in Games 1 and 2, the Knights were able to match the Shockers’ early offensive fireworks right away, tying them 2-2 after the 1st inning. However, just like in Game 2, the Shockers pulled away. By the end of the 4th inning, it was 6-2. Then, in the top of the 5th inning, Wallace would hit a grand slam home run over the left-field wall to put the Shockers up 10-2.
UCF would score one more run in the bottom of the 5th inning, but after that, no one from either team scored for the rest of the game, which ended in a 10-3 win for Wichita State.
In 3.0 innings of work, starting pitcher Jack Sinclair would also allow 6 hits and 6 runs, just like Serwa the day before. While Hunsicker, making his second appearance in the series, allowed only three hits, he also was the pitcher that gave up Wallace’s grand slam home run.
All told, the quintet of Wallace, Sigrist, Cadena, Gibson, and Bartlett combined to score eight of the Shockers’ ten runs in Game 3. Lovelady said after the game that they punish mistakes and they “hammer” when pitched balls over the middle of home plate.
“You just got to execute on the edges better and be able to land off-speed stuff for strikes and put it in difficult spots for them to hit it,” Lovelady said. “We just didn’t do that.”
SUNDAY: Wichita State 7, UCF 6
Lovelady also said in the post-game press conference after Game 3 that in order to win Game 4, the Knights would have to keep the game close, unlike in Games 2 and 3. In that regard, the Knights succeeded.
However, it was not because of Game 4’s starter, AJ Jones. He allowed seven hits and five runs in 2.2 innings of work. By the end of the 3rd inning, the Knights were down 5-2.
However, with Vespi, in his second series appearance, giving up only one hit to Shocker batters in 4.0 innings, the Knights offense was able to make a comeback and take a 6-5 lead thanks to two 6th inning home runs, a solo home run from SS Alex Freeland and a go-ahead two-run home run by 2B Tom Josten.
Lovelady said in a post-game press conference that he has been proud of Vespi’s development over the past eight months and that he’s given the team a chance when he is put into huge games.
That 6-5 score would hold until the 8th inning, when McKay, in his second appearance of the series, gave up hits to two of the Shocker’s top five batters, Gibson and Bartlett. After McKay intentionally walked Shocker CF Seth Stroh with two outs to load the bases, making a force out for the third out easier, he unintentionally walked Shocker SS Andrew Stewart with the bases loaded. This brought Gibson home for the tying run.
Bartlett would return to the plate in the 9th inning for another at-bat against McKay. His fly out to left field gave Wallace time to tag up to home plate, getting the go-ahead run that would ultimately give the game its final score, 7-6, and Wichita State the series victory.
Lovelady said after the game that he was proud of his bullpen’s performance, despite the way the game turned out.
“I think our bullpen has done a tremendous job of holding games where they were to try to give us a chance,” Lovelady said.
In the face of Wichita State’s quintet of high-powered hitters and starting pitchers allowing runs to score early on, UCF had to play from behind for a majority of the time in this series, which put both more work and more pressure on the bullpen. In Games 1 and 4, the team was able to keep the game close and have opportunities to win, while in Games 2 and 3, things got out of hand.
“I mean, just a lot of pressure on the offense to have to come back, play from behind, and when you feel like when you’re doing that every game, it’s difficult,” Lovelady said. “It’s tiring. It’s tiring as a coach and it’s tiring as an offense.”
With the end of the regular season and the conference tournament looming after a season that Lovelady said has had a lot of trials and tribulations, ups and downs, and “crazy stuff” that has happened to the team, he hopes that these experiences have made them mentally tougher.
“Sometimes you got to be in the fire to kind of callus yourself from the difficulties,” Lovelady said. “So hopefully, these last couple weeks and we get into the tournament that those are types of things that we’ll be able to overcome because of the things we’ve been through.”
The series loss brings the Knights back below a .500 winning percentage to a 23-25 overall record. It also brings the Knights to a 13-11 conference record, which has caused them to slide down one spot in the conference standings into a tie for 4th with Cincinnati. Wichita State now takes over 3rd with a 13-10 conference record exiting the series.
Next week, the Knights will head out for their final away series of the season against Tulane. The first two games of the four-game series will be played in a doubleheader on Friday, May 14.
According to Tulane Athletics’ baseball schedule, Game 1 is scheduled for 2 p.m. local time (3 p.m. Eastern) on ESPN+.