The UCF Knights Baseball team had some soul searching to do, head coach Greg Lovelady said on Saturday.
The Knights had just lost their second game to Samford, 7-6, as well as the series. It did not help that David Litchfield, the only weekend starting pitcher to escape injury last weekend against UNC Greensboro, exited that evening’s game with what Lovelady called a lower-body injury.
“I think we’ve just kind of maybe hit the panic button a little bit and just gotten away from what made us really really good,” Lovelady said. “This isn’t the team that we were three weeks ago, this isn’t the team that I know we can be.”
While the team would respond with an 11-1 run-rule victory the next day, it still served as the end to its second consecutive 1-2 weekend series.
Game 1: “We just didn’t do enough”
In a low-scoring game, a single pitch can change the course of an entire game. This is something the Knights experienced in their 4-3 extra-inning loss in Game 1 on Friday.
Less than a week after he earned his first save of the season, William Saxton received the starting nod. In 5.2 innings of work, he allowed one run on four hits.
“We needed to find a way to give some depth, just in terms of getting through the game and not taxing our bullpen, and he did exactly what we needed to do,” Lovelady said.
By Saxton’s exit, the Knights scored their first run on a sacrifice bunt by 1B Ben Rushing, bringing home RF Tom Josten. However, Samford responded with an RBI sacrifice fly ball and tied the game.
While the bullpen would not be overstretched, it still needed to preserve a two-run lead that the team built in the 6th inning.
However, all it took was one pitch in the 8th inning to change the game.
Between UCF’s three bullpen pitchers, they allowed four hits in 4.1 innings. One of those hits was the two-run homer that tied the game in the 8th inning and another was a 10th-inning double that ultimately became the deciding run.
“Couple pitches either way, we find a way to win, but we just didn’t do enough,” Lovelady said.
However, Lovelady also said the offense could not put together quality at-bats or make enough adjustments.
“We’re just not getting enough of those big hits,” Lovelady said. “Guys just need to relax the play, but at the same time, they need to rise up and get the job done when they get chances—not be timid or scared to go out there and just enjoy the moments and trust all the training and have fun up there and just try to get the job done.”
Game 2: “We got a lot of soul searching to do”
While the offense was able to score more runs in Saturday’s Game 2, it was forced to play from behind most of the game. Ultimately, it would not be enough as the Knights fell once more, 7-6.
Litchfield gave up the first trio of Samford’s runs in the 1st inning. Though, the Knights tied the game up by the 4th thanks to solo home runs by SS Alex Freeland and Josten and an RBI single by Rushing that brought home 3B Michael Brooks.
However, Samford retook the lead in the 5th, hitting a solo home run, an RBI double, and an RBI groundout on the UCF bullpen. The latter two scores were helped along by two UCF errors.
“We need our bullpen to be a lot better in terms of consistency than we’ve been,” Lovelady said. “It’s almost like a flip of the coin sometimes of who we’re gonna see: the good version or the bad version.”
Once again, the Knights offense worked to catch up. They came within one run in the 8th inning thanks to a throwing error by Samford 3B Will David, which allowed Brooks and C Andrew Sundean to score.
Yet, the Bulldogs were able to get one more RBI double to make it a two-run game. Despite a second home run on the night for Freeland in the bottom of the 9th, the Knights came up short.
“We had opportunities and chances to blow the game open or get back in the game and we just couldn’t take advantage of it,” Lovelady said. “We kept fighting back, which was great, but it seemed like every time that we started to get some momentum, we did something stupid and killed the momentum.”
Game 3: “It kind of hit the reset button”
As Lovelady said after Game 1, Staine made his first start since sustaining back spasms on Sunday for Game 3, which the Knights would go on to win in seven innings, 11-1.
“It was it was a great feeling more so than a concerned feeling,” Staine said. “Now, the first batter, I think there was a lot of jitters coming back, even though it’s within a couple days. There’s always just kind of like that that angst and that excitement.”
Staine only pitched for two innings, and Lovelady said he would not go more than that.
“We’ll see obviously how he feels tomorrow before we make any decisions and all that, but the goal was to get back out there and get him feeling good,” Lovelady said.
Staine was not only credited with the win, but he also allowed just one hit and struck out three batters, preserving his Division I-leading 0.00 ERA.
As for the offense, in a lineup lacking 1B Nick Romano or C Riley Wash, 2B Noah Orlando has stepped up to become one of the team’s more reliable batters.
Coming into Sunday’s game, he recorded a hit in six of his last seven starts and almost hit a two-run home run above the right-field foul pole in Saturday’s game to bring the Knights to within one run of the lead in the 7th inning. However, it ended up being ruled foul after further review.
On Sunday, however, there was no doubt about it as Orlando hit it over the fence in the opening inning to get the Knights on the board.
“It just felt good it was fair,” Orlando said.
While the Bulldogs tied the game up with an RBI single in the 4th, the Knights got back out ahead with an RBI SAC Fly by Freeland to score RF Pablo Ruiz and a pinch-hit RBI single from Ryan Taylor that brought home Sundean.
However, it was the 7th inning where the game was broken open. The Bulldogs cycled through four pitchers. Combined, the quartet gave up eight runs on two hits, five walks, and four batters hit by pitches.
Once an RBI single from Sundean scored the Knights’ 11th run, giving them a 10-run lead over Samford, the run rule was invoked.
It was a win the team needed since, according to Lovelady, it had forgotten the feeling of winning.
“I hope this weekend maybe was rock bottom and we just get back to work tomorrow and realize that, as bad things have been—and things have not gone our way because of injuries—it doesn’t matter,” Lovelady said. “We still have a good enough team to win a lot of games. We got to believe that.”
The Knights, now 14-10, host Florida Atlantic on Tuesday at 6 p.m. before beginning conference play with a weekend series against USF in a rematch of last season’s AAC Tournament Championship Game.
Games 1 and 2 will be at 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday respectively with Game 3 beginning at 1 p.m. on Sunday. All four games will stream live on ESPN+.
Player of the Series: C Andrew Sundean
The true freshman catcher out of Lakeland was pushed into service last week, having to start behind the plate with Wash sidelined.
In his limited at-bats compared to many of his teammates, Sundean’s bat has reliably gotten him on base at least once in the majority of his appearances.
With @AndrewSundean's single in the bottom of the 6th, he now has a hit in 7 of 8 games so far this season.— UCF Baseball Analytics (@KnightsBSBData) March 27, 2022
For this series, in his 3rd-5th collegiate starts, he recorded a hit in all three games, RBIs in Games 1 and 3, and scored in Games 2 and 3.
While Sundean was consistent in the batter’s box, it was that combined with his highlight defensive plays (including the play of the series) behind the plate that got him this weekend’s honor.
Play of the Series:
Ball ricochets off 2B Noah Orlando’s foot, picked up by SS Alex Freeland, and thrown to C Andrew Sundean to get the tag at home for out No. 3