Despite injuries and a 28-28 regular season, the UCF Knights Baseball team came within one run of the program’s first conference tournament championship since 2002 last year.
Now, the baseball team returns with its opening series this weekend against Siena sporting a majority of last year’s hitters intact, revamped starting rotation, new additions from the transfer portal, and more.
Here’s what you need to know for the 2022 season as we talk with head coach Greg Lovelady:
The Knights boast a revamped starting rotation, with Hunter Patteson, who will start against Siena on Sunday, being the only returner to start more than five games last season.
Patteson rebounded after a rough start to his 2021 season, returning to the starting rotation after Colton Gordon’s season ended prematurely due to Tommy John surgery. In his five starts after returning to the rotation, Patteson struck out 30 batters and gave up 10 earned runs, six of which came in just one game in the American Tournament against Cincinnati.
Joining him on the rotation is former closer David Litchfield and Maryland transfer Connor Staine.
Litchfield earned eight saves last season, tied for the most in the conference. His opening night start on Friday against Siena will be the first of his collegiate career, but Lovelady said he has “more prototypical starter stuff than he does closer stuff,” and praised his temperament.
“He’s earned it,” Lovelady said. “He’s been the best guy in practice consistently, every single day. He also has the experience and temperament for Friday nights, I believe to not only go late into games but to be able to handle the pressure of having to pitch against everybody’s best guy.”
Staine, who Lovelady calls the team’s best pitcher in terms of “stuff,” will start on Saturday. Lovelady said he compares the transfer to Mets starting pitcher Max Scherzer in how they both pitch with emotion.
“We’ve really worked and I’ve seen growth so much from him since he’s been here, just handling the mental game, not allowing things to affect him,” Lovelady said.
While Patteson will be pitching on Sunday, Lovelady said that any of these three starters could be the team’s ace, a testament to the rotation’s depth and “elite talent.”
With Litchfield moving to the starting rotation, Lovelady said Florida International transfer William Saxton and returner Ben Vespi will be the pitchers the team believes in for the back end of the bullpen.
While the team will be without Zack Bennett this season, who made 22 appearances last season due to Tommy John Surgery, Lovelady said the bullpen has depth with experience that it did not have last season.
In terms of returners, there is Vespi and Zack Hunsicker, who both pitched over 45 innings last season, and Nick Viera, who pitched a 1.62 ERA in 16.2 innings of action.
Lovelady also brought experience to the bullpen in the form of transfers, including Saxton from FIU, JUCO-transfers Cameron Crain and Ruddy Gomez, Chase Centala from Florida, and Kyle Kramer from Rollins College.
However, this is not to say that any of the team’s other less-experienced pitchers will not see the mound at all this season. One such pitcher, true freshman Cylis Cox, was cited by Lovelady as one of four bullpen arms that can “close the door,” a designation he shares with Saxton, Vespi, and Hunsicker.
With a bullpen that has some solid depth, Lovelady said it takes the pressure off the rest of the bullpen, keeping redshirt sophomore Nolan Lepkoske and true freshman Julian Balzer, Jacob Marlowe, and Dominic Castellano from having to pitch in situations they are not ready for yet.
“They might turn into major roles, but they don’t have the pressure of putting them in situations where maybe they’re just not ready,” Lovelady said. “As we get their feet wet and get them into some games and get them acclimated and understanding and learning that they will be able to step up if anything happens during the year.”
Infielders and Catchers
In the field, the Knights return a wealth of experience this season.
The unit is anchored by shortstop Alex Freeland, who Lovelady calls a premier shortstop in the country. Back on Media Day, Freeland said the infield has bonded together very well since they now have a year of playing together under their belt.
“We’ve got chemistry, playing the whole full year last year, so everything that we do is second nature now,” Freeland said.
The rest of the infielders are ripe with versatility. Despite being listed on the roster as just a first baseman, Lovelady said Nick Romano, who returns after an injury-fraught 2021, can also play third base.
The duo of John Montes and Tom Josten, who both saw time at second base last season, also returns.
Lovelady said Josten was a huge part of last year’s team due to his versatility, barring shortstop, catcher, and center field, he can play anywhere on the field, or just slot into the lineup as a designated hitter.
“I’ve been working hard and trying to build on what we did last year,” Josten said at Media Day.
While Andrew Brait, who spent time at third base last season, will also return, Lovelady said he had surgery on his left shoulder that will keep him out of action for the early part of the season.
However, with this team’s versatility, there are players that can fill the spot. Michael Brooks, who sat out last season after transferring from Arkansas, saw time at the position in the fall. Lovelady said he believes that Brooks is going to have a big year, in part due to his history with USA Baseball and the Future Stars Series. However, Josten and Romano can play there as well.
As for behind the plate, Ben McCabe, now free from first baseman duties with Romano healthy again, is joined by three newcomers: Riley Wash, a transfer from Pittsburgh, and true freshmen Andrew Sundean and Cole Russo.
Lovelady said he thinks all four of them will see action behind the plate at some point this season.
He also highlighted Russo’s versatility, because not only did he see action at third base this fall, Lovelady said he can play first base as well.
Even with the above players’ versatility, redshirt senior Noah Orlando and true freshman Brogan Napier and Ryan Taylor are also among the infielders that can be called upon should Lovelady need them.
With the departure of Rathbone and Crouch, center fielder Gephry Pena has the highest batting average last season of the returning players at .290, and he led the conference with 27 stolen bases last year.
Pablo Ruiz, who saw time in left field last season, also returns. Supposing he does not move positions, that leaves one open spot in right-field left by Rathbone.
One player Lovelady said has the potential to be a “frontline” guy is Trent Taylor, who served mostly in a pinch-hitting or pinch-running capacity last season. Aside from seeing time in the position in fall ball, Lovelady said Trent Taylor was Pena’s “mirror,” and is just as fast and just as defensive as he is.
“If he can play the way I know that he can, I mean, he can have a monster year for us,” Lovelady said. “He’s just got to be able to handle the ebbs and flows of failure in this game.”
One new addition to the unit, who has drawn praise from Pena, Josten, and Lovelady, is true freshman Lex Boedicker. Per Lovelady, he is a left-handed power hitter that also has the versatility to play first and third base.
Aside from Ben Rushing and Jason Ambos, the only other outfielder on the roster is awaiting word from the NCAA on whether he can play this season: dual-sport Ole Miss transfer John Rhys Plumlee.
The Plumlee Situation
Since Plumlee transferred to UCF last month, after the July 1 transfer deadline for spring sports, he requires a waiver from the NCAA to compete for the baseball team this season.
Plumlee, who plays quarterback in football and outfield in baseball, is Lovelady’s first dual-sport player of his coaching career. Lovelady said while the situation is “dynamic” and “difficult at times,” Plumlee will “definitely” be a big part of both the football and baseball programs.
“The kid has an unbelievable work ethic, the kid has unbelievable skillset,” Lovelady said. “In terms of both sports, I think he can help UCF in a lot of different ways, whenever that is.”
Who’s on the Schedule?
While the Knights begin their season against Siena, 2022 will bring them to blows with No. 5 Ole Miss, who is coming to Orlando this time after going 1-2 against the Knights last season in Oxford.
They will also host No. 25 Miami (FL) on Mar. 16 in a midweek game before hitting the road for a two-game series with No. 11 Florida State on Mar. 22 and 23.
In conference play, they will host No. 12 East Carolina, Tulane, and Cincinnati and hit the road to play Memphis, Wichita State, and Houston. The team will play two series against USF, one in Orlando from Apr. 1-3 and one in Tampa from May 6-8.
“The American is such a grind, it’s such a challenging conference,” Lovelady said. “I think that our nonconference games need to try and mirror that as much as possible, to try to prepare us for what we’re going to see when we get into conference play.”
The Knights were elected to finish in the same place as last season, 5th, which would be enough for a return trip to BayCare Park in Clearwater for another run at the conference tournament title.