The UCF Knights baseball team capped off the regular season by sweeping a four-game home series against Houston.
The sweep gives the Knights a final regular-season record of 28-28, an even .500, and while head coach Greg Lovelady said in a post-series press conference that finishing a season at .500 is not something he would run around being proud of, he also acknowledged that the mark gave the team a goal to play for in this series.
“They really worked hard, they know that’s not a true representation of what we are and who we are as a group,” Lovelady said. “We just had a lot of things that haven’t gone our way that has affected our ability to play as good as we needed to.”
Runs proved to be at a premium in this series, with only 13% of half-innings thru the entire series including a score. This left both teams in a game of attrition, with the side that avoided more mistakes or could manufacture enough runs achieving the win. UCF would win via the latter method in Game 1.
THURSDAY: Manufacturing Runs
Both teams sent out their respective starters, freshman Hunter Patteson for the Knights and junior Robert Gasser for the Cougars, for 2.0 innings before taking them out to rest them for the American Athletic Conference Tournament in Clearwater, Florida on Tuesday.
Lovelady said that the Patteson fans saw on Thursday and in the previous two weeks was the pitcher that he saw in the fall and early winter. He praised Patteson’s maturity for accepting his bullpen role after being “rattled” earlier in the season.
“It really shows his true colors in terms of what kind of pitcher he is,” Lovelady said. “We needed it and when we needed him to step up and he’s done a great job for us.”
That left the rest of the game to the team’s bullpens. UCF’s freshman Ben Vespi and redshirt juniors Billy McKay and David Litchfield combined to pitch 7.0 innings, allowing no runs and 2 hits and striking out 8 batters. Litchfield would also get his sixth save of the season for his efforts.
As for Houston, most of the pitching work went to sophomore Jaycob Deese, who pitched 4.2 innings. However, Deese would allow more hits (5) than UCF’s pitchers that night combined (4). One such hit, coming in the bottom of the 5th inning, would be the one swing of the bat that would give UCF the win: a three-run home run to left field by senior RF Jordan Rathbone.
Lovelady said in multiple press conferences this week that the wind was playing a factor in this series, causing some hits that could have been home runs to fall short. Rathbone said in a Sunday interview that the wind was “howling straight-in” and that it was the hardest winds he’d ever seen in his time as a Knight, so hard that he knew he would not be able to hit the home run if the ball went into center field.
“I just got to put a good swing on it and it happened to go to the right part of the ballpark it could actually go,” Rathbone said. “If you hit that ball to center field, probably gets knocked down to the second baseman.”
UCF would go on to win Game 1, 3-1.
The difficulty to score continued into Game 2. Aside from Rathbone scoring off of a single from CF Gephry Pena in the 1st inning, no runs were scored again until the 7th.
For UCF’s part, sophomore starter Zack Hunsicker and freshman Nick Vieira pitched 7.0 innings combined, allowing no runs, 1 hit, and striking out 7 batters. Lovelady would go on to praise Vieira for his development throughout the season in his post-game press conference.
“He’s been one of the biggest risers from the fall,” Lovelady said. “He’s worked hard, didn’t get a lot of opportunities earlier in the year, and then got a couple opportunities and really made the most of it.”
Freshman 2B John Montes would get highlights on both sides of the ball in this game. Offensively, he scored the deciding run of the game in the 7th inning off of a single by freshman LF Pablo Ruiz. However, earlier in the game, in the top of the 6th inning, Montes got the defensive highlight of the game by making a leaping grab for a line-drive out.
With Litchfield having already pitched that day, it was up to freshman Zack Bennett to close the game. While he did allow 3 hits and Houston’s only run of the game in his 2.0 innings of work, he also struck out 3 batters and earned his first save of the season and his college career. Lovelady said this was the best he’s seen Bennett throw in the past two or three weeks.
“That was great to see, just going out there in a tight game and being able to execute and throw his breaking ball,” Lovelady said. “That’s kind of his bread and butter and it hasn’t been as sharp the last couple outings, so it’s good to see that back.”
Thanks to that performance, UCF would win Game 2, 2-1.
FRIDAY: All It Takes Is One
It might not be too much of an exaggeration to say Game 3 was over on the word “go,” because the Knights scored half the runs that they would score in the entire series in the bottom of the 1st inning.
Houston’s starter, senior Carter Henry, was relieved after having only pitched 0.1 innings, allowing 6 hits and 5 runs, including a lead-off solo home run from sophomore DH Tom Josten.
“We had a great game plan and a great approach to that guy, being able to see the sinkers up and stay through the middle of the field to kind of neutralize the off-speeds, especially his change-up,” Lovelady said.
Once Henry was relieved, Houston’s bullpen combined to give up only 1 hit the rest of the night, a solo home run in the 7th inning by junior C Josh Crouch.
Crouch got ALL of that one— UCF Baseball (@UCF_Baseball) May 22, 2021
The moonshot extends the lead to 6-0 ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/qIoISfM9i6
However, the damage had already been done. After the bottom of the 1st, Houston was unable to make up any ground on their deficit thanks to UCF’s pitching duo that evening.
While it was junior Jack Sinclair that started the game, it was senior relief pitcher A.J. Jones that took advantage of his Senior Knight appearance. Jones pitched for 6.0 innings, allowing 7 hits, no runs, and struck out 8 batters, the second-most he’s had in a single game all season. Lovelady said Jones has put a lot of pressure on himself this season and it affected his performance.
“Having a 5-0 lead he comes in the game I think just allowed him to relax and he got into a couple tight spots and was able to pitch out of it,” Lovelady said. “Those are the things that he hasn’t been able to do lately, where he’s gotten into some tight spots early in the game and given up a home run or a big hit to clear the bases and then just let it snowball.”
Sinclair and Jones would team up to bring the Knights the 6-0 shutout victory in Game 3.
Saturday: Long Time, No See
Game 4 saw a much lengthier stay on the mound for Houston’s starter, this time junior Matt Lazzaro. He faced off against UCF redshirt junior Kenny Serwa.
Serwa ended up having his longest start of the season, pitching 7.0 innings, allowing 5 hits and 1 run, and striking out 6 batters, tying the mark for the most strikeouts he’s had in a single game this season.
“Kenny was getting ahead and getting a lot of first-pitch outs and a lot of first-pitch contact and being able to attack the zone and didn’t get behind in the count very much, so he kept his pitch count down,” Lovelady said.
Unlike the previous three games, where either team was able to score at least one run in the first inning, Game 4’s first run would not come until the 4th inning. In the meantime, the second defensive highlight of the week came courtesy of Pena who made a diving catch for the second out in the top of the 2nd inning.
Houston would get up one run on the board in the top of the 4th inning, but the bottom of the 5th inning was all the Knights needed to score enough runs to get ahead. The half-inning saw freshman SS Alex Freeland score on a double by junior 1B Nick Romano to left-center field and Ruiz score on a groundout to shortstop by junior 3B Noah Orlando.
Romano and Orlando made their 14th and 11th starts of the season respectively in Game 4. This was Romano’s 4th RBI of the season, his first since May 1 against Memphis. As for Orlando, this was his 3rd RBI of the season, the first time he’s recorded one since March 21 against Jacksonville.
“You got to pay attention on the bench and do a lot of visualization and you got to be mentally tough, so just proud of those kids to go out there today and get two big hits that ended up winning the game for us,” Lovelady said.
Vespi and Litchfield would pitch in relief and help defend the Knights’ 2-1 lead, which ended up being the game’s final score, securing the series sweep. Litchfield was credited with his 7th save of the season, his second of the series.
In addition to finishing with an overall record of 28-28, the sweep also gives UCF an 18-14 conference record, tied with Cincinnati for 4th in the conference standings. The tiebreaker ended up in favor of the Bearcats, so the Knights will go into the conference tournament as the No. 5 seed. Now, the team will have to play Cincinnati as the away team in the first round of the tournament Tuesday. The game is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. on ESPN+.
UCF split their series against the Bearcats in their regular-season series with a total run differential of 39-28 in the Knights’ favor. Lovelady said that Cincinnati, headed by head coach Scott Googins, is always a team that “plays hot.”
The Bearcats finished their regular season with 5 of their players in the top 20 batting averages in the conference while one of their starting pitchers, senior Garrett Schoenle, has the second-lowest ERA in the conference at 2.30. Just like Patteson, Schoenle made a short start (3.0 innings) in Game 1 of the Bearcat’s final regular-season series against Tulane.
“We need all of our guys to go out and play the way that they’re capable of playing,” Lovelady said. “I don’t need anybody to rise above or do more than what they’ve done all year.”
Rathbone said the tournament-style format will make things easier on the team than the four-game series have been since it allows for off-days for the bullpen to get rested.
In a year that’s been marked by struggle, whether it was from COVID-19 or other injuries, Rathbone said it was exciting to be heading to Clearwater, a place he calls “one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
“I just feel like we’ve already gone through all the struggles at this point and we can just go play,” Rathbone said. “Everybody’s pretty confident. We know we can beat anybody on any day.”