Catcher Josh Crouch said the UCF Knights baseball team loves playing in Clearwater’s BayCare Park.
He said the team particularly loved its backdrop and how they can “see the ball extremely well” there, but he also mentioned the wind.
“The wind is either a crosswind out to left or a crosswind out to right,” Crouch said. “I think we all just know that if we get in the air, some good things are gonna happen.”
Good things happened against Memphis on May 27, when the team beat the Tigers in 7 innings, 17-1, to advance to the semifinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament. Out of those 17 runs, 12 were scored because of a home run.
“I mean, you never really expect that, but once we started rolling, everybody was just running to the plate wanting to hit,” head coach Greg Lovelady said after the game.
The seven home runs hit by the Knights offense against the Tigers not only set the mark for the most home runs the team has hit in a single game all season, but it also set an American Athletic Conference Tournament record for most home runs hit in a single game.
Two of these home runs were hit by Crouch, increasing the number of homers he’s hit in the tournament to three. Crouch said this comes thanks to an adjustment he made to his swing last week that has allowed him to “be on time for pretty much everything.”
“He does extra,” Lovelady said. “He’s in front of the mirror breaking down his receiving and his swing puts in a lot of time and effort. Just to see his growth over the last two years and how he’s developed as a player, both as a catcher and as a hitter, has been fun to watch.”
Later tater— UCF Baseball (@UCF_Baseball) May 27, 2021
Crouch goes yard AGAIN, and we're up 7-1 ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/7Bnu7OuiZt
Another player that got a home run in the game was designated hitter Nick Romano, who Lovelady said has had his season derailed early on by a hamstring injury. To put things in perspective, Romano appeared in 17 of the 18 games of the interrupted 2020 season, starting 16 of them. In the 2021 season, in which the Knights have played 58 games, Romano played in 24, starting 16.
Lovelady said that Romano “scuffled out of the gate” when he returned from his hamstring injury, which kept him out of action for three to four weeks.
“All of a sudden, now you’re putting more pressure on yourself because you’re behind everybody else that’s playing because you missed three to four weeks of live at-bats,” Lovelady said. “The great thing about [Romano] is he’s never pouted, he’s never felt story for himself, he’s never complained. He just shows up every day and works.”
Now, after hitting 4 RBIs in the regular season, Romano has hit 4 RBIs in the first two games of the tournament.
“I think he, personally, is kind of a microcosm of what we’ve done as a group,” Lovelady said. “It hasn’t been pretty, it hasn’t been what we expected, but we show up every day and worked and he has been that way. When you do that, the baseball gods are more apt to reward you, so it’s been fun to see him do well.”
Meanwhile, second baseman Tom Josten contributed to the score with a home run of a different variety, an inside-the-park home run.
“You just don’t get a chance to get inside-the-park home runs very often,” Lovelady said. “If you’re gonna bust it out of the box and run hard, you deserve to try and get a chance.”
Others that would hit the ball over the fence include shortstop Alex Freeland, center fielder Gephry Pena, and right fielder Jordan Rathbone, who hit a grand slam in the 6th inning that gave the game its 17-1 final score.
The offensive onslaught would come against a certain Memphis starting pitcher, Chris Durham, that gave the Knights offense problems back on April 30, during Game 1 of the two season’s regular season series. In that game, which Memphis won via the run rule, Durham pitched all 7.0 innings, struck out 5 batters, and allowed 2 runs and 6 hits, two of them being home runs.
This time, Durham only pitched 3.0 innings, struck out 3 batters, and allowed 6 runs and 5 hits, 3 of which were home runs.
Lovelady said the team executed their game plan to perfection, which was to prepare them specifically for Durham’s changeup and force him to “elevate” the pitch.
“We knew what he was going to throw at us and it was nothing overpowering so I think all the hitters pretty much stuck to the plan and knew he was going to try and poke us around the zone, get the corners,” Crouch said.
Not to be outdone, starting pitcher Jack Sinclair had another successful outing against Memphis. In the regular season series, on May 2, Sinclair pitched 5.0 innings against the Tigers, struck out 2 batters, and allowed 5 hits and 2 runs.
Sinclair put together a similar performance this time, pitching 6.0 innings, striking out 4 batters, and allowing 5 hits and 1 run.
“I think he managed really well,” Lovelady said. “He had some command issues with his fastball, but he was able to land the slider when he needed to.”
Even though the Knights have made AAC conference tournament history, Crouch said the team has been “pretty underrated” due to finishing the regular season at 28-28 (.500). Now, with a 30-28 overall record, he said the team is “for sure” making a run at the conference championship.
“We all as a group knew we could do this, but it just needed to be out and done on the field,” Crouch said. “So, we’re clicking on all cylinders at the right time, for sure.”
UCF will get another day off to prepare before taking East Carolina, after they beat Memphis in an elimination game on Friday, 12-0. Lovelady said on Thursday that either Kenny Serwa or A.J. Jones will start the game depending on who won between East Carolina and Memphis.
Lovelady said he is excited to be in the position where UCF has to be beaten twice in one day to be eliminated, but is also excited about the day off, viewing it as an opportunity for the team to get better.
“It’ll be the most important practice, but we say that every day, so it shouldn’t change,” Lovelady said. “There’s still ways to get better, we still can play better and we just got to use tomorrow as an opportunity to get our bodies in the best spot from recovery and rest and stretching and things like that.”
In the end, it will just be just like the day off the team had on Wednesday to prepare for this game.
“We got an hour to practice, so we’ll just do the normal thing that we did, same thing we did yesterday,” Lovelady said. “Just continue to try and get better and try to be the best we can on Saturday.”