Despite an early stumble and a certain incident with pine tar, the UCF Knights Baseball team came away with a series victory on the road over Memphis.
While the Tiger pitchers gave the Knights (20-12, 5-1 AAC) trouble early on, it would not last for the rest of the weekend.
Game 1: Stumbling out of the gate
While Friday night’s Game 1 started as a matchup between aces, it would not be that way for long.
Per Marc Daniels on the game’s radio broadcast (since there were no ESPN+ streams for Games 1 or 2), starting pitcher Connor Staine exited the contest after two innings due to a blister under a finger on his throwing hand and lower back problems. He allowed no runs and three hits.
While Staine had already been held back in the two weeks before the War on I-4 series with back spasms, he said after his Friday night start against the Bulls that he had a blister on his middle finger that kept him from going one more inning.
“I wanted to go another, but it was just one of those things where I could make this worse, or I could just trust my bullpen,” Staine said.
However, against Memphis, the bullpen could not keep the Tigers off the board. In the 4th inning alone, the Tigers scored via an RBI single, a throwing error, a passed ball, and a wild pitch.
Memphis starting pitcher Landon Gartman and closer Dalton Kendrick kept most of UCF’s batters from reaching base, combining for 13 strikeouts on the day.
SS Alex Freeland would help get one run across for the Knights in the 5th inning in the form of 2B Ryan Taylor on an RBI groundout.
However, Memphis responded in the 6th with a solo home run and an RBI sacrifice fly to give the game its final score, 6-1.
Game 2: Win No. 300 for Lovelady; Patteson Returns
Head coach Greg Lovelady said after the game that the Knights needed a bounce back after Friday night’s game.
They did just that in Saturday’s Game 2, with the Knights invoking the run rule after seven innings, winning 13-3.
The scoring started early with Tiger starting pitcher Dexter Fowler, who gave up 8 hits and 7 runs to the 13 batters he faced before being pulled from the game. Such hits include a solo home run by Freeland, two RBI doubles, and two RBI singles.
Freeland hit another home run, this time for two runs, a couple of innings later, and a 2-RBI double in the 7th, finishing with 5 RBIs and going 4-5 in the batter’s box.
Also in the multi-RBI club for the game was LF Lex Boedicker, with three, and C Andrew Sundean and 2B Ryan Taylor with two apiece.
Since the Knights offense took control of the game early on, it took the pressure off of their starting pitcher, Hunter Patteson, who was pitching for the first time since March 20 after exiting the game with an injury.
In a limited appearance, he pitched two innings, allowing two runs via a two-run homer, four hits, and striking out one batter. Relievers Ben Vespi and Chase Centala took the game the rest of the way, allowing one run, five hits, and striking out five batters combined.
Vespi was credited with the win, which was also the 300th overall in Lovelady’s career. He said getting the win was “a cool thing,” and credited the work of his assistant coaches and players.
Game 3: So, that happened
Part 1: Offensive Explosion and The Incident
The Knights offense started Sunday’s Game 3 in a similar fashion as the previous day by jumping out to a large early lead in the 1st inning.
Before the incident that took Baseball Twitter by storm, Boedicker and 1B Ben McCabe had already hit an RBI-single and RBI-double respectively to put UCF up, 2-0.
Then came Sundean, who hit a three-run homer over the left-field wall for his 2nd collegiate career home run.
What followed was a series of events that saw shades of Kansas City Royals legend George Brett’s infamous pine tar incident in 1983. Jeff Sharon analyzed the entire incident in a video, which you can catch below:
While the incident led to the ejections of both Lovelady and Memphis starting pitcher Blake Wimberley, the UCF head coach appeared on Marc Daniels’ “The Beat of Sports” radio show on Monday morning to discuss the incident.
After everything was said and done, the Knights offense picked up where it left off, with 3B Ryan Taylor hitting the first home run of his collegiate career in the very next at-bat, a solo shot to center field.
A couple of RBI doubles and an RBI single later, UCF concluded an eventful 1st inning with a 10-0 lead.
Part 2: Defending the lead
Over the next two innings, the Memphis offense answered back by scoring six runs of its own on eight hits off of UCF’s starting pitcher David Litchfield, making it a 10-6 ballgame.
After 2.2 innings of work, Litchfield was pulled from the game and the bullpen took it the rest of the way. Combined, not only did Zack Hunsicker, Kyle Kramer, Ruddy Gomez, and Dominic Castellano not allow any more Tigers to score, but they also only allowed two hits for the rest of the game.
The offense also added some insurance runs on the board via a two-run RBI single by Freeland and the first home run from RF Pablo Ruiz since Feb. 18, a three-run shot to left field.
Ruiz’s home run also gave the team a season-high 19 hits for the game and solidified the game’s final score at a 15-6 Knights victory.
After a midweek game on Tuesday in Jacksonville to conclude their road trip, the Knights (20-12, 5-1 AAC) return home to face off against East Carolina.
The Pirates have not seen the success they had last season, but they come into this series with the 3rd-lowest ERA in the AAC. However, they also have the 2nd-lowest batting average in the conference.
Offensively, OF Lane Hoover has the 7th-highest batting average in the conference this season at .355. Meanwhile, the Pirates also have two pitchers that rank in the Top 10 lowest AAC ERAs in starter Jake Kuchmaner (10th) and (mainly) reliever Carter Spivey (7th).
Due to the series taking place on Easter weekend, Game 1 will begin at 6 p.m. on Thursday, followed by Game 2 on Friday, also at 6 p.m., and Game 3 will be at 2 p.m. on Saturday. All games will be streamed live on ESPN+.
Player of the Series: SS Alex Freeland
While Freeland was a major contributing factor on offense in Games 2 and 3, he was also the only Knight to drive a run home in the Game 1 loss.
All told, Freeland went 6-14 in the series and hit 10 RBIs, accounting for 30% of his now 32 season total. Plus, two of those hits were his two home runs in Game 2, which puts Freeland at a team-leading nine so far on the season.
Freeland also got the AAC’s Player of the Week honor for his performance this week.