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Baseball Takes Two of Three vs. Tulane

Knights one game back of first in American

Photo: Noah Goldberg

Between analyst picks, injuries, and an over 50-spot disparity in the RPI rankings, the UCF Knights Baseball team was not heavily favored over the Tulane Green Wave.

However, thanks to one similar offensive performance to the previous week at Wichita State and a career pitching performance, the Knights (26-17, 10-5 AAC) were able to pick up the 2-1 series victory. However, the team was without LF Lex Boedicker—one of three Knights batters with more than 100 ABs that have a .300+ batting average— this weekend after he “tweaked his back,” per head coach Greg Lovelady.

“Just got to keep showing up, keep working, find a way,” Lovelady said. “I told the guys that ‘Don’t be shocked if there’s more things that we have to overcome,’ but hopefully we’ll continue to get healthier and just keep playing baseball.”

While the series win positions the team ahead of Tulane in the conference standings, the team does fall into a tie for 2nd place with Houston due to East Carolina getting a sweep over Cincinnati.

Game 1: Vespi goes over the Green Wave

Perhaps it’s fitting that the series’ lone pitcher’s duel was Friday’s Game 1, AKA Wrestling Knight, where the Knights pulled off the 2-1 victory.

Like two fighters in the ring, Knights starter Ben Vespi and Tulane’s Dylan Carmouche traded blow after blow in the form of scoreless innings, with seven of nine innings having no runs to be seen.

Vespi, who Lovelady said has played a lot of different pitching roles for the team, ended up turning in his longest appearance of his college career. He pitched for seven innings, allowing only one run on two hits and striking out a career high seven batters.

“When I go out there when my name’s called, it’s the same thing,” Vespi said. “Same thing going on, just going out there and playing baseball.”

Vespi kept the Tulane offense from building up a deficit of more than a single run, scored on an RBI groundout in the 2nd inning. The Knights offense had to wait for five innings to overcome it.

Both runs came in the 7th inning. First, 3B Michael Brooks laid a sacrifice bunt down the third-base line, but a throwing error from Tulane’s third basemen brought home 1B Ben McCabe to tie the game up.

“We’ve got to use our toolbox,” Lovelady said. “We had to dig deeper, and we got guys with speed, we got guys that can bunt.”

Two at-bats and two outs later, LF Pablo Ruiz brought Brooks home with what would ultimately be the game-winning RBI single.

“You had to get on top of the baseball,” Lovelady said. “You had to find a way to score runs and we did that tonight.”

Relief pitcher Kyle Kramer entered the game for the final two innings to preserve the Knights’ 2-1 lead, earning his 5th save of the season.

After going on a four-game losing streak against East Carolina and Jacksonville, Friday night’s win capped off a four-game winning streak that began in Wichita.

“In the past, we felt sorry for ourselves and tonight we just came out and kept playing,” Lovelady said.

Game 2: Late Knight falter ties up series

While there were more runs to be found in Saturday’s Game 2, the Knights were unable to build a substantial lead, which let late-game mistakes give Tulane the win, 7-5.

Offensively, most of the game ended up being a case of anything UCF could do, Tulane would find a way to match it and tie the game up.

SS Noah Orlando scores on a wild pitch in the 3rd? Tulane gets an RBI groundout the next inning.

McCabe hits a 2-run home run in the 5th? Tulane scores on a passed ball in the 6th and then ties it up with an RBI single in the 7th.

CF Gephry Pena got the lead back for the Knights with a solo shot to left field, but the Green Wave would tie it up the next inning thanks to a throwing error.

However, Tulane did not stop there. Later on, in the 8th inning, Green Wave DH Brady Marget hit a 2-run RBI single to take the lead, which would increase by one more in the 9th inning with an RBI single by RF Ethan Groff.

While UCF did get the tying run to the plate and got one more run to score thanks to LF Tom Josten’s RBI single, it was not enough. If the game had only counted earned runs, the Knights would have won, 4-2. It was the five unearned runs that made the difference.

“We did a lot of good things offensively,” Lovelady said. “Just kept fighting, proud of the kids there in the 9th to get the winning run up to the plate, but we just pitched like crap and played horrible defense.”

Including Saturday night, the Knights are 3-7 this season when they commit multiple errors in a game.

Starting pitcher Cameron Crain, making his 5th start of the season, “managed” and had flashes in his three innings on the mound, Lovelady said. Despite issues with his fastball and changeup, Crain managed to give up only one run on three hits and struck out two batters.

Chase Centala also kept the Green Wave offense at bay in his two innings of work, giving up no runs on one hit and striking out three batters.

However, the subsequent four relievers that pitched the final four innings would combine to give up five hits and six runs, including all five unearned runs.

“I didn’t think many guys were prepared to come in the game and stop the bleeding and step up when we needed it,” Lovelady said. “Just had too many guys come in and make the same mistakes time and time again.”

Despite the loss, Lovelady said the team’s late-game efforts still gave the Knights a chance, which is all he could have asked for.

“I’m proud of the guys for not rolling over, especially after you give up the lead twice,” Lovelady said. “Just proud that they just kept competing. I don’t know if we’d have done that four weeks ago.”

Game 3: A thin margin, but still a win

While Tulane made a late rally, UCF put up enough runs early on to take the win in Sunday’s Game 3 and the series.

The Knights put up most of their runs in the game’s early going, before an hour-long weather delay in the 4th inning.

It began in the 3rd, with C Andrew Sundean’s two-run RBI double that put the Knights on the board.

It was followed by a costly two-out mistake from Tulane. Thanks to a collision between its catcher and first baseman, a pop-up by Josten fell fair, resulting in Sundean scoring from 2nd.

This was followed by an RBI single by Brooks, bringing Josten home to give the Knights a four-run 3rd inning.

While Tulane would cut the lead in half in the 4th inning thanks to two RBI singles, Pena responded in the bottom half of the inning. His three-run home run to put the Knights up, 7-2, was the first time he has hit home runs in back-to-back games in his college career.

It also came very shortly before the weather delay, allowing Pena to speak with his mother. She still lives in the Dominican Republic and has not seen her son play in person since high school.

“When I hit the homer, I was just rounding the bases and I was like, ‘Wow, did I just do that in front of my mom?’” Pena said. “I saw that, when I hit the ball and I started walking to the base, I saw them going crazy, jumping around so that just made me really really happy and I was like, ‘Wow, this is just amazing.’”

After the weather delay, Tulane came out in the 5th and scored two more runs thanks to an RBI single and RBI triple. However, LF Pablo Ruiz’s own RBI single put the Knights up by four heading into the final two innings.

Kramer was brought out once again to close the game, and he did get the first two outs. However, he also gave up two runs, an RBI double and an RBI single, cutting UCF’s lead to two. So, Centala was brought out to get the final out and seal the series win.

After an absence last weekend due to a blister on his throwing hand, Connor Staine returned to the mound to start. He pitched three innings, giving up no runs on four hits and striking out two batters.

“He was amped up, at the same time trying maybe to do a little too much, but I’m proud of him for going out and competing,” Lovelady said. “I know it’s difficult.”

However, it was reliever William Saxton that was credited with the win, who gave up no hits and four walks in four innings of work. He also struck out three batters.

While Lovelady said the team did not pitch great, they were able to manage and get “big outs.”

Despite adversity continuing to strike—whether it’s in the form of injuries or a tough loss—time and time again, the team found a way to get what Lovelady calls a “big series win.”

“I’m proud of the guys for coming out this week, and we’ve had to overcome so much, it seems like it just never stops,” Lovelady said. “We’ve toughened ourselves and showed great toughness today.”

What’s Next?

Before the team’s next weekend series, it first has to travel to Jacksonville for the final game of the season against North Florida at 6 p.m. on Tuesday. The Knights are 2-2 against the Ospreys this season and are 1-1 while playing them in Jacksonville.

After that, the Knights travel to Tampa for the second battle in this season’s War on I-4. The last time these two teams faced off, UCF swept USF, with two of those wins being one-hitters.

Now, the Bulls are 4-11 in conference play, have the 5th-lowest ERA in the AAC (5.60), and

sit in second-to-last in the conference in batting average, a hundredth behind UCF (USF: .270, UCF: .280).

Similar to their inter-state counterparts, the Bulls have also been dealing with injury woes this season.

- Their ace pitcher, Jack Jasiak, is out for the season with a non-specified upper extremity injury.

- While he went 1-10 in the previous War on I-4 series, OF Drew Brutcher still leads the Bulls in home runs. He has been out since April 14 with a lower-body injury that Bulls head coach Billy Mohl said to The Oracle will keep him out a month.

However, to beat the Bulls, the Knights will once again have to shut down OF/INF Carmine Lane. Despite going 0-9 in the last War on I-4 series, Lane still sports a Top 10 batting average in the conference (.342).

Player of the Series: OF Gephry Pena

Not only did Pena hit home runs in back-to-back games for the first time in his career, but he got the second one with his mother in attendance.

While Pena’s mother did attend a UCF Baseball game in Pena’s freshman season, 2019, Pena himself did not play. This made Sunday’s game the first time Pena’s mother has seen her son play in person since high school.

Pena was also selected to the AAC’s Weekly Honor Roll.

Play of the Series:

Pena’s three-run home run with his mother in attendance