June 1, 2012
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By John Denton
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Do-everything junior Ronnie Richardson started things for UCF early on Friday and played a big role in an eighth inning rally that allowed the Knights to grab a 2-1 lead through eight innings of Game 1 of the NCAA Regional.
Richardson opened the NCAA Regional game with a home run, led off the eighth inning with a single and scored on Chris Taladay's single to give the Knights a 2-1 lead on Missouri State. Just prior to the start of the top of the ninth inning, lightening, a tornado watch and the prospect of heavy storms delayed the game's conclusion.
UCF closer Joe Rogers put the Knights in position to rally in the bottom of the eighth by pitching out of a bases loaded, no-out jam in the top half of the inning. Rogers induced a ground ball, a shallow popup to shortstop and another grounder to keep the game tied at 1-all.
Richardson, UCF's most clutch player all season, did the rest against Missouri State standout starter Nick Petree. The Eagle Lake native hit a 3-1 fastball over the leftfield fence in the first to put UCF up 1-0. Richardson opened the eighth by lacing a single to left field and was sacrificed to second on a bunt by Darnell Sweeney. Taladay then recorded UCF's sixth hit of the day by looping a ball to right field to plate the speedy Richardson.
The winner of the UCF-Missouri State game will play the winner of the Miami-Stony Brook winner on Friday. UCF (43-15) is making its 11th appearance in the NCAA Regional and is playing in Coral Gables in the postseason for the first time ever.
UCF's eighth inning rally was significant considering that quality of competition on the mound. Petree was named the Louisville Slugger National Player of the Year on Thursday after leading the nation in ERA this season at 0.92. From Richardson's home run to a single by Ryan Breen in the seventh, UCF got just two balls out of the infield against Petree, a slider specialist with an above average fastball.
UCF played well defensively all day with several gems, but its biggest play of the day might have been a dropped popup in foul territory. With the bases loaded in eighth inning, Missouri State's Eric Cheray lofted a fly ball down the line in left. Ryan Breen, who was making just his seventh start of the season in left field, couldn't handle the popup in foul territory. It's probably a good thing since Breen would have had a difficult time throwing out a tagging Luke Voit. Cheray ultimately popped up and UCF got out of the jam when Travis Shreve gloved a grounder and flipped to second base.
Missouri State tied the game at 1-all in the seventh inning by stringing together a double and a single. Pinch-hitter Dillon Becker's fly ball to left field carried in the wind blowing out and hit off the wall for a double. UCF did keep the game tied later in the inning when Alex Friedrich's throw from right field nabbed Kevin Medrano off third base.
UCF sophomore starter Ben Lively, who pitched well last week in the Conference USA tournament to regain his momentum after a poor outing late in the regular season against Rice, was clutch throughout Friday's first six innings. In 5 2/3 innings, he struck out six batters, but more importantly he stranded seven Missouri State base runners.
Lively jammed hitters early in counts with fastballs and used a good slider to get strikeouts. He allowed just three hits and pitched around four walks. Of his 113 pitches, 62 went for strikes.
UCF got stellar defensive plays early in the game from Friedrich, D.J. Hicks and Ryan Breen to maintain the 1-0 lead. Hicks scooped up a low throw in the second inning to keep a runner at second base, while Friedrich made a diving catch near the right field line in the third with two runners on base.
And in the fourth inning, Ryan Breen caught a fly ball before crashing into the wall. Usually a catcher, Breen was making just his seventh start in left field because of a sore wrist. And in the fifth, a hard ground ball deflected off Hicks' glove, but Travis Shreve scooped it up to make the play.
Lively pitched out of trouble in each of the first three runs to keep the Knights ahead, 1-0. With the bases loaded in the top of the first, Lively induced a check swing on a ball in the dirt and when the runner broke from third he was easily tagged out. He ended the second inning with two strikeouts after a Missouri State runner had reached second base.
With two on in the third, Friedrich dove to catch a looper near the right field line, preventing one if not two runs from scoring.
Third baseman Nick Carrillo and shortstop Darnell Sweeney made outstanding plays in the sixth inning to stem another Missouri State rally. Carrillo snagged a hard hit ball early in the inning to start a double play. Then, after Madrid relieved Lively, Sweeney went deep into the hole and forced a runner at third to end the inning. For Sweeney, a Miramar native, the game was somewhat of a homecoming.
UCF couldn't build on its 1-0 lead when it missed great scoring chances in the third and fourth innings. After the first two hitters of the third reached, Petree retired the next three Knights. And with two runners on in the fourth, UCF couldn't convert a sacrifice and ran themselves out of the inning.
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.