The UCF Knights Baseball team staved off a sweep this weekend, going 1-2 at John Euliano Park against UNC Greensboro.
The series was marred by three injuries: head coach Greg Lovelady said C Riley Wash was “banged up,” leaving him unavailable for the series, and starting pitchers Connor Staine and Hunter Patteson both exited their games prematurely due to injuries.
“It’s been a really crazy weekend, just really stressed our bullpen to the limits,” Lovelady said after Sunday’s game.
Game 1: The Game Mother Nature so Rudely Interrupted
In Staine’s case, he only made it through one batter on Friday before going to the ground. After briefly returning to the mound and having a conversation with Lovelady, he ultimately exited the game with a hand on his back as he made his way to the dugout.
Lovelady said on Saturday that he thought Staine sustained back spasms.
“It was brutal,” Lovelady said. “You just hope that the guys can go out there and attack the zone and try to sneak out 3-4 innings out of some guys and we just weren’t able to do that.”
However, despite Staine’s absence, the Knights were able to build a 3-1 lead by the bottom of the 4th inning thanks to a two-run home run by SS Alex Freeland and an RBI double by 1B Lex Boedicker.
However, it was shortly after Boedicker’s RBI that the lightning strikes began, halting play.
For around an hour and a half, the field remained dry. Once the rain began falling though, the game was suspended for the day.
The teams returned at 3 p.m. the following day and the Knights picked up where they left off, getting out to a 7-1 lead by the end of the 6th inning thanks to RBIs from LF Pablo Ruiz, 3B Michael Brooks, Freeland, and CF Gephry Pena.
Over the next two innings, UNC Greensboro made its comeback, getting out ahead 8-7 after Spartan 2B Hogan Windish hit a go-ahead two-run home run. Though, Pena would hit another RBI to bring home pinch-runner Noah Orlando to tie the game up, 8-8.
The Spartans would get two more runs in the 9th and despite the Knights getting one of their own in the bottom half of the inning, it was not enough. UCF fell, 10-9.
“I just felt like we gave away—we had four innings where we just had horrible at-bats and I just felt like we stopped competing and we thought the game was out of hand and then, all of a sudden, they come back and then, all of a sudden, we compete at the end, but it was just too little too late,” Lovelady said.
Game 2: Back at it Again
45 minutes later, the Knights returned to the field for Game 2. However, after UNC Greensboro got the lead, 2-0, in the 3rd inning, it would keep it for the rest of the game, winning 6-4.
“We just didn’t play good enough defense in those first few innings,” Lovelady said.
The Knights would generate some offensive production. Brooks kept the team in the game early on by hitting a solo home run to left field to cut the lead in half.
1B Ben Rushing got one over the fence as well. It was the second home run of his collegiate career and his first since the pandemic began. That previous home run came against Siena for his first collegiate career hit on Feb. 19, 2020.
Two more runs came courtesy of Freeland and C Andrew Sundean, who was making his first career collegiate start, but it was not enough. The Spartans’ four runs in the 7th inning were enough to escape the Knight offense’s reach.
“We gotta get better offensively, 1-9,” Lovelady said. “We gotta find ways to score more runs and be that relentless team that you kind of saw in the last couple innings of each game.”
With that said, Lovelady also said the team did not play good defense in this game as well, which is something that proved crucial given the state of the bullpen after Staine’s early exit on Friday and the relievers that pitched earlier in the day for Game 1.
“We needed clean baseball so we could try to extend David [Litchfield] as much as we possibly could and minimize the guys ‘cause we were pretty much on empty there in the bullpen,” Lovelady said.
Game 3: The Pitching and Pena Show
Lovelady would end up having to call on the bullpen again on Sunday, though starter Hunter Patteson was able to pitch 2.0 innings, allowing one hit and striking out five batters, before exiting the game with an unspecified injury. Lovelady called the injury a “gut punch.”
“Just didn’t feel right,” Lovelady said. “So, just felt like you got to stay cautious.”
However, just like with Staine, the Knights were able to get runs on the board shortly after the starter’s exit. Pena was involved with all of them.
First, Pena hit an RBI single that brought home Rushing and 2B Tom Josten. Shortly after, he stole third base before scoring on a throwing error by the Spartan catcher.
These would be the only runs scored by the Knights in Game 3.
Ben Vespi entered the game in relief of Patteson and went on to pitch 3.0 innings, striking out two batters and only allowing one hit. However, that hit was a 2-run home run by UNC Greensboro DH Collin Fowler.
Vespi was then replaced with William Saxton, who pitched for the remaining 4.0 innings. Entering this appearance, the FIU transfer led the team in walks, with 15.
Saxton said he was “working on stuff” with pitching coach Nick Otte and that addressing his high walk count was one such thing.
Not only did Saxton not walk any batter on Sunday, but he also struck out the final two Spartan batters to seal the 3-2 win for the Knights to earn his first save of the season.
Lovelady said he hopes Saxton can “take this outing and just kinda run with it.”
“I know he hasn’t pitched the way he wanted to—then you come out today in a big situation with a lot on the line and a lot of pressure on him, to handle it and be able to do what he did, he really saved us the game,” Lovelady said.
After a weekend that Lovelady said was “crazy” and stressed the team’s bullpen to the limits, he praised the team’s toughness.
“I’m just proud of the kids for finding a way to come back today,” Lovelady said. “We talked about having to show the toughness.”
After the events of this weekend’s series, the team has to travel to Tallahassee to face off with No. 7-ranked Florida State with a pair of midweek games: one on Tuesday at 7 p.m. and the other at 4 p.m. on Wednesday.
Lovelady said the games are a challenge and have a huge regional-type atmosphere.
“Those are the types of things you want to play in the end of the year,” Lovelady said. “Let’s go measure ourselves in that type of atmosphere.”
Player of the Series: CF Gephry Pena
Pena went 8-14 over the entire series, accounting for 30 percent of the Knights’ hits as a team for the weekend.
“I was just trying to do my job, just trying to help the team win,” Pena said. “It’s all I try to do every single game.”
Pena also got seven steals on the weekend, doubling his total for the season to 14.
“I was just trying to trust my move and just go out there like I wasn’t afraid to get thrown out,” Pena said.