The UCF Knights baseball team opened its 2022 season with a sweep in their three-game series with Siena this weekend.
The series brought head coach Greg Lovelady against one of his former UCF players, Joe Sheridan, who has now begun his first season as Siena’s hitting coach.
“It’s good to see him getting a job,” Lovelady said. “It’s very hard to get a Division I assistant job. So, happy that he’s doing that.”
Going up against Sheridan’s pitchers was a new-look rotation for the Knights.
Last season’s closer, redshirt senior David Litchfield, made his first collegiate career start on Friday. After a six innings workload, he allowed just two hits, and struck out a career-high eight batters.
“It’s definitely a whole different feel,” Litchfield said. “I caught myself sitting in the locker room with nothing to do. Normally, I’m sitting in the dugout watching the game unfold, and then it’s ‘Hey, you’re in the game now,’ and I just go do it.”
Redshirt sophomore Connor Staine made his UCF debut on Saturday. He pitched 4.2 innings, allowed one hit and two runs, and struck out eight batters.
Central Florida RHP Connor Staine is, without a doubt, a name to know. Fantastic athlete on the mound. Up into the mid-90s with serious ride. Long levers, projection. Slider low-80s, flirting a tick higher. Slider command is next frontier. Big time arm. pic.twitter.com/lGzoTpiRh5— Joe Doyle (@JoeDoyleMiLB) February 19, 2022
However, the Maryland transfer stumbled a bit out of the gate when he allowed a walk and an RBI single that got Siena on the board first. Staine said that a spike in his adrenaline made it hard for him to settle in early on.
“It was hard to settle in when you’re trying to focus on your breathing, but keep that same energy,” Staine said.
The lone holdover from last season’s rotation was redshirt sophomore Hunter Patteson, who started on Sunday. He pitched five innings, allowed three hits, no runs, and struck out nine batters, one short of his career high.
“We feel like we walk into the game with an advantage, knowing we got him on the mound on Sundays,” Lovelady said.
Some Dazzling Debuts
While the lopsided nature of UCF’s victories this weekend allowed Lovelady to substitute in some of the Knights’ new additions to get some playing time, several of these new additions were among those in the starting lineups.
Redshirt freshman Michael Brooks made his first collegiate starts at third base on Friday and Saturday. The Arkansas transfer hit 4-7 with three RBIs for the series and also drew praise from Lovelady for his defensive capabilities at the hot corner.
“I haven’t played third base much of my life, but I played it a lot this year, during the fall and during the spring, so it caught on to me,” Brooks said.
A duo of UCF newcomers received starts behind the plate. True freshman Cole Russo got the nod on Friday and redshirt senior Pittsburgh transfer Riley Wash took over on Saturday and Sunday. Both catchers batted .500 for the weekend and combined for five RBIs.
Another true freshman, Lex Boedicker, made it into the starting lineup in all three games: two as the left fielder and one as the first baseman. He hit 4-11 on the series, but one of those hits, his first, was a triple.
“To see those young guys go out there and be able to settle in, I thought they did a tremendous job of just playing the game and not allowing moments to get too big and trusted their mental game,” Lovelady said. “It was fun to watch.”
Redshirt senior Nick Romano got the start at third base on Sunday after starting at his normal first-base spot for the first two games.
Per Lovelady in preseason interviews, Romano was held back in the 2021 season due to injury. He said that Romano has been the team’s best player in practice for the last three years and now that he’s healthy, he hoped Romano could show what he has seen in practice.
Romano hit 6-12 for the weekend, tied for the most hits on the team. He also finished the series with five RBIs, the second-most on the team. He also hit his first home-run of the season, a two-run shot over the right-center field wall, on Saturday.
“Just keeping him healthy is really the important thing,” Lovelady said. “Do that and you’re gonna see a lot more of that all year.”
An Active Atmosphere
The series included several additions to the UCF Baseball experience, such as the distribution of fake mustaches on Friday to match the one Litchfield sports, the debut of Citronaut Saturday, and a fireworks show after Saturday’s game.
“I love the Citronaut Saturday,” Lovelady said. “I would probably do Citronaut every day if I could.”
In case you missed it, here are the post-game fireworks that were set off after @UCF_Baseball's 16-2 win over Siena Saturday night.— Bryson Turner (@itsBrysonTurner) February 20, 2022
The series finale between both teams starts tomorrow at 1 p.m. with @RayniahJones throwing out the first pitch. #UCF #GKCO pic.twitter.com/6jS9mqZsZr
Lovelady said after Sunday’s game that the next four games for the team will be challenging ones since they will be out on the road. It starts with a midweek game against North Florida on Tuesday at 6 p.m. before the team heads to Georgia Southern for a three-game series against them from Friday to Sunday.
“It gets tougher and tougher as the year goes on, so we got to continue to grow and there’s things we can get better at,” Lovelady said. “As good as the weekend was, we still got work to do.”
Player of the Series: DH Ben McCabe
In a series that was dominated by offense, DH Ben McCabe produced the most of it.
He was the only player to hit a home run twice over the weekend, which are just two of his six hits in eight at-bats. He also drew three walks, meaning he finished the weekend with a .833 on-base percentage, the highest on the team. To top it all off, he also led the team in stolen bases, with four.