May 15, 2012
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By John Denton
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - These days, every time UCF lefty closer Joe Rogers lies down to sleep he keeps having this dream that he's rushed by a mob of people, knocked to the ground and pinned under a mass of humanity.
Not to worry, this is no nightmare for Rogers. It is actually every closer's dream scenario and one that Rogers hopes unfolds several times over the next three weeks, starting with this weekend's winner-take-all series against Rice at the UCF baseball complex.
The confident type who wants the ball in his hands with the game on the line, Rogers is already dreaming of a scenario where he could potentially seal UCF's first-ever Conference USA baseball title this weekend against Rice. With the No. 13 Knights (40-12 overall and 15-6 in C-USA play) and No. 4 Owls (36-14 and 15-6) tied atop the conference, the team that takes two of three games in the series will be the regular-season champ.
If all goes according to Rogers' dreams, UCF will win that championship and he'll be the one mobbed by celebrating teammates near the mound.
"Before I go to sleep I lay there and try to picture our team about to win a ring and all of us dog-piling on the mound to win the conference or going to Omaha (for the College World Series),'' Rogers said. ``That's what all great players and teams do - they picture themselves in big games and try to envision winning them. I know a lot of the guys on our team do that and we want that (conference championship) so bad.''
Before it can fully turn its attention to the big Thursday-through-Saturday against Rice, UCF hosts Stetson (34-18) Tuesday night in a showdown of rivals. The two teams had a hard-fought 13-inning game in Deland two weeks ago - one that UCF won 5-4 on a home run by Ronnie Richardson.
Rogers is one of the main reasons why the Knights are in a position to win a conference championship. As UCF's closer, he is 4-1 with a 1.73 ERA and 11 saves. And with a fastball that often approaches 90 miles per hour, Rogers regularly overpowers hitters with his electric fastball and improving slider-curveball combination pitch. His 42-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio is phenomenal and opposing batters are hitting just .206 against him.
In Friday's victory at Marshall, Rogers broke Jason Arnold's 11-year record for saves by recording the 28th of his career. Fittingly, Rogers struck out the side to earn the school mark. While the saves record is nice, maybe no statistic tells Rogers' worth to the team more than this: UCF is 36-0 this season when leading after eight innings.
"Joe is on a mission for himself and a mission for our team,'' UCF head coach Terry Rooney said. ``(Sunday night) at 9:30 at night I'm walking through the office and there goes Joe Rogers on a run. Those are the things that people behind the scenes don't see, but that's what it takes to be great. And that describes Joe's attitude toward getting better.''
Rooney is a big fan of Rogers' attitude around his teammates because he's matured dramatically in his three seasons at UCF. Not only has Rogers shaved almost three runs a game off his ERA from last season, but he's also evolved into the driving force that Rooney had hoped for.
"You can lead in all different kinds of ways. You have to lead by example in the way you carry yourself. But on your great teams your best players need to be your best leaders,'' Rooney said. ``Joe Rogers has been a leader for our pitching staff and has held himself and others accountable. Joe has been relentless in his desire to get better. And he's having the best year he's ever had.''
Remarkably, Rooney stumbled upon the Winter Haven native almost four years ago when he was going out to scout current Knights Chris Taladay and Austin Johnston. While at a summer league game, Rooney was drawn to the confidence Rogers exuded and the competitiveness he showed in going right after hitters. Back then, Rogers was throwing in the mid-80s and few realized that he would become the power-pitching closer that he is today.
"Coach came that day to see Austin and Chris Taladay, but it's not like he wasn't coming to see me. It's crazy, but they say everything happens for a reason,'' Rogers said. ``Coach said he saw me on the mound, liked my presence on and off the mound and thought that I had a bulldog mentality. I threw a little slower back then, so coach was thinking of me as a pitch-ability lefty. But things have really worked out for me and I couldn't be happier.''
And nothing would make the Knights happier than to have Rogers on the mound this weekend with the lead over Rice and three outs away from locking up a C-USA title. Rogers, who changes into a special undershirt during the middle innings before getting ready to close games, said he desperately wants the ball in his hands with the game on the line.
After all, he's already dreamed about how the postgame celebration will unfold.
"I always lay there and envision myself out there in the ninth inning, getting that big strike out and throwing my glove up in the air and all of us dog-piling,'' Rogers said. ``I hope we get that chance.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.