The UCF baseball team capped off an incredible turnaround Saturday, defeating rival South Florida 3-2, and for the first time since 2004, earning a share of the regular-season conference title. After finishing at the bottom of the pack in 2016, first-year head coach Greg Lovelady has helped put the Black and Gold at the very top of The American.
"You can't honor your seniors any better than you did today," Lovelady said after the game. "I'm really proud of the whole team. All the older kids set out on this mission from the day I got here. They told me what they wanted to do, and what they thought they could do."
The Bulls came out swinging and grabbed the early lead in the opening frame. The first three hitters delivered matching ground-ball base-hits back up the middle to take a 1-0 lead. UCF freshman starter Joe Sheridan then settled in and retired the next three batters, striking out two. He would give up just three more hits over the next six innings.
The Knights offense was ready as well, charging right back to score two with a two-out rally in the bottom half of the first. Short stop Brennan Bozeman doubled down the left field line before left fielder Kyle Marsh drew a walk.
First Baseman Rylan Thomas then added another double to the corner in left, scoring Bozeman easily. Marsh came all the way around from first and dove to the back corner of the plate, narrowly avoiding the tag after the relay from the outfield.
Sheridan had found a groove, and proceeded to retire USF in order in the second, third, and fifth innings. All told, Sheridan would go seven complete innings giving up just two runs on six hits with one walk and eight strikeouts.
UCF added its third run in the third, when Marsh laced a one-out double to the gap in left-center field. Then, with two outs, it was third baseman Kam Gellinger who came up clutch, with a single through the left side that allowed Marsh to score. The run would prove to be key.
USF saw hope in the top of the seventh, when a one-out walk was followed by a throwing error during a sacrifice bunt attempt. With runners at first and second, a would-be double-play ball was again thrown away, allowing the Bulls second run of the game to cross the plate.
The visitors then attempted to steal third but the batter was called out for interfering with the throw, after stepping out of the batter's box and impeding the throw of UCF catcher Anthony George. With the runners sent back to first and second, Sheridan came up big again, freezing the next hitter on a 2-2 count to end the threat.
Coach Lovelady then put the game in the hands of 6'5" reliever and Knights season-strikeout leader, Jason Bahr. Bahr needed just eight pitches to get a pop fly and two ground outs to retire the Bulls in order in the eighth. He returned to finish the job in the ninth, and despite giving up a lead-off single, slammed the door with a fly ball and two strikeouts.
With the win, the Knights finish as The American's 2017 Co-Regular Season Champion after Houston defeated Cincinnati to finish with an equal conference mark of 15-9. UCF owns the tie-breaker with the Cougars and will claim the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament on May 23.
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