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Baseball Holds off Houston, Stays Within Striking Distance of AAC Lead

Knights position themselves for shot at No. 2 seed in AAC Tournament

Photo: Noah Goldberg

Despite dropping Game 1, the UCF Knights Baseball team came back to take the next two games to win its series with Houston last weekend.

With neither team able to build a lead higher than four runs, hitting home runs proved to be a difference-maker, with both teams hitting a combined eight for the weekend.

The win puts Houston into a tie for 2nd place in the American Athletic Conference standings, and a tiebreaker over the Cougars, meaning the Knights will get the higher conference tournament seeding should both teams finish the regular season tied.

Game 1: Haunting Houston Homers

Despite a fast start, a trio of Cougar home runs spelled defeat for UCF in Friday’s Game 1, 9-6.

Thanks to RBI doubles from C Andrew Sundean and 2B Tom Josten, and an RBI single from 1B Ben McCabe, the Knights got out to a 4-0 lead in the first inning to start.

However, after stringing together a couple of quality starts, Ben Vespi faltered in this weekend’s six-inning outing, giving up six runs on eight hits. Five of those six runs came thanks to a pair of home runs from Houston 1B Ryan Hernandez: a two-run shot in the 2nd inning and a go-ahead three-run homer in the 4th inning.

Tack on an RBI single by Cougar CF Brandon Uhse, and what once was a four-run lead turned into a two-run deficit in two innings.

Josten closed the gap by half in the 5th inning thanks to an RBI sacrifice fly that allowed LF Lex Boedicker to score.

The score would remain this way for a couple of innings until Houston broke the game open in the 8th inning with a three-run home run by pinch hitter Santiago Garcia.

CF Gephry Pena managed to get a solo home run that cut the Cougars’ lead to three, but it ultimately proved moot.

While Houston only out-hit UCF by one (11-10), just three swings of the bat brought home the runs necessary for a Cougar win.

Game 2: Pulling it out in the end

Unlike Friday, Houston was not able to pull out for a lead larger than two runs in Saturday’s Game 2, which cost them in the late going as UCF took a 6-5 victory.

Boedicker got the night started in the opening inning with an RBI double, putting the Knights up on the board first once again. Though, it was quickly countered in the bottom half of the inning with a two-run RBI double that gave Houston the lead.

The game went scoreless for the next three innings, until the 5th. It was then that Josten hit a two-run home run to return the lead to UCF’s hands.

However, once again, the Cougars responded in the bottom half of the inning. Thanks to two RBI singles and an RBI groundout, the Cougars had the lead back, 5-3.

Though, it was cut in half shortly after thanks to a solo shot from SS Noah Orlando.

The UCF bullpen kept the Cougar offense at bay for the final four innings. While it was not striking batters out, getting only two, Houston was limited to only one hit in the final four innings.

This allowed the Knights offense to make a 9th inning rally. Sundean got it started with an RBI groundout.

It was quickly followed by the next batter, Josten, hitting a go-ahead RBI single. It was his 3rd RBI of the game, and with a scoreless bottom of the 9th thanks to closer Kyle Kramer, it was also the game-winning RBI.

Game 3: Holding out for the series win

Runs were harder to come by for both teams in Sunday’s Game 3.

In the first of only three at-bats of the game that resulted in a score, McCabe got UCF on the board with a two-run home run in the 2nd inning.

Houston answered in the bottom half of the inning with an RBI single, cutting the lead in half. It was the only run starting pitcher Cameron Crain gave up in his 3.2-inning outing, though he also allowed five hits and three walks.

UCF did restore its two-run lead in the 4th inning, though, thanks to another home run, making it a 3-1 game. This time it was a solo shot from 3B Michael Brooks.

The Knights’ bullpen once again kept the Cougar offense at bay, not striking them out, but also not allowing any hits. In the final 5.1 innings of the game, only two Houston batters struck out, but they only mustered one hit.

Kramer notched his second save of the weekend and sixth save of the season as the Knights took the series.

What’s Next?

The Knights return home to Orlando for their final four games of the regular season.

First up, the team has its final midweek game against Bethune-Cookman at 6 p.m. on Tuesday. The last time these two teams faced off, back in March, the Knights won, 6-2, but at the cost of losing 1B Nick Romano for the season thanks to a torn ACL.

A few days later, the team has its final regular-season conference series against Cincinnati. While East Carolina has already clinched the AAC regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, the No. 2 seed is still up for grabs. All UCF must do is have the same record or better against Cincinnati than Houston does in its final regular-season series against East Carolina to clinch the No. 2 seed.

The Bearcats have the AAC’s 4th-best batting average (.276), but its worst earned run average (6.57).

Individually, UCF pitchers will have to be on the watch for Joe Powell and Paul Komistek, two of the Top 10 highest batting averages in the conference. The Bearcats also have the AAC’s individual home run leader in Griffin Merritt (17) and the speedy Kerrington Cross, who has more stolen bases than anyone in the AAC besides Gephry Pena.

On the mound, the Bearcats have the 7th-lowest ERA in the conference in starter Conner Linn and the pitcher with the 4th-most strikeouts in the conference, starter-reliever Beau Keathley.

All games are slated for 6 p.m., with Game 1 on Thursday, Game 2 on Friday, and Game 3 on Saturday.

Player of the Series:

David Litchfield, Relief Pitcher

While he initially found success early on in the year as part of the starting rotation, Litchfield was eventually returned to the bullpen after he gave up three runs or more in six straight games in March and early April.

This weekend was the first time in almost a month that Litchfield has made an appearance longer than two innings. In fact, he did it twice, in both Games 2 and 3.

He kept the Cougars hitless in 2.1 innings of action in Game 2, and only allowed one hit in 4.1 innings of work in Game 3. In a series where the Knights had to hold onto slim leads or keep the Cougars close until the offense can take the lead, Litchfield did so in both the games that ended in UCF victories.

(Note: Litchfield’s Pitcher of the Week honors from the AAC account for his one-inning appearance against Miami (FL) on May 11th)

Play of the Series:

RF Trent Taylor makes a diving catch to end the 7th inning in Game 3