Despite a mid-game rally, the UCF Knights baseball team was not able to make up the deficit, losing to USF in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game, 8-7.
For the Bulls, the win guarantees them a spot in the NCAA Regionals and the team’s first conference tournament championship since 1995.
As for the Knights, the loss brings their season to a close with a 31-30 record overall and an 18-14 conference record.
“We fought like crazy,” Lovelady said. “Unfortunately, we just ran out of time.”
The necessity for a comeback came after UCF’s starter, A.J. Jones, allowed 6 runs on 6 hits in the 1.2 innings he pitched.
“I just thought he got punched in the face,” Lovelady said. “Then some bad things, some unlucky plays, not knowing the outs, things like they, kind of snowballed for him. We just couldn’t make enough plays and [the Bulls offense] did a great job of being able to look at things on some balls and find some holes.”
However, despite the start, the UCF offense began mounting a comeback during the game’s middle innings. First, it was catcher Josh Crouch’s 4th home run of the tournament in the third inning.
Crouch got of that one!— UCF Baseball (@UCF_Baseball) May 30, 2021
Then, it was 2 runs in the 5th inning by Crouch and shortstop Alex Freeland. Finally, the team came within one run of the Bulls in the 6th inning thanks to runs from Crouch, second baseman John Montes, right fielder Jordan Rathbone, and center fielder Gephry Pena.
FAIR BALL!!— UCF Baseball (@UCF_Baseball) May 30, 2021
Another double for @alexfreeland10 plates a pair‼️
South Florida 8, UCF 6 #ChargeOn ⚔️ pic.twitter.com/5G0UgkX65K
However, despite the comeback, one thing was readily apparent. While UCF was getting more hits than USF, the Knights were not able to get hits with two outs and getting their baserunners to score. All told, the Knights finished with a .273 average with two outs and left 12 batters on base, while USF had a .462 average with two outs and left 6 batters on base.
“This game comes down to, usually, who can score with two outs, who can get those big hits and who can take advantage of runners on base and [USF] just did a really good job for that early in the game,” Lovelady said.
Despite a stumble out of the gate with Jones, the Knights’ bullpen was able to hold off most of the Bulls’ offense, led by right fielder Daniel Cantu and catcher Josh Sullivan who combined to hit 5 of the Bulls’ 9 hits of the game. Combined, relievers Billy McKay, Nick Vieira, and Zack Bennett pitched for 7.1 innings, allowed 2 runs on 3 hits, and struck out 6 batters.
Despite the bullpen’s performance not being a contributing factor in a win, Lovelady said that through their appearances here, young pitchers like Bennett and Vieira gain experience that can help the team make another run at the conference championship in the future.
Lovelady said the team could have “rolled over and died” in March or April. This was especially the case for Rathbone, who Lovelady said dislocated a pinky finger in April and broke a thumb in May. However, the team still showed up at practice and put the work in all year, leading them to the conference tournament championship game despite being a No. 5 seed.
“I would have loved to see this team compete at full strength and not have some of the issues that we had, but that’s just part of the game and part of life and you gotta be able to overcome them,” Lovelady said. “I thought we did a great job of doing that and getting here to the end.”