2007 UCF Baseball Season Preview

Jan. 19, 2007

College baseball is a dynamic animal. One year a program could have all the right tools in place, but the very next season a whole different group of players could take over the field. The 2006 version of the UCF baseball team fit that model. When key injuries occurred along the way, the Golden Knights were forced to use a large selection of promising freshmen in what was their first trip into an adventurous Conference USA campaign.

Now that UCF has solidified depth throughout its 2007 roster, the new season should benefit everyone in many ways. Last year's freshmen are now experienced sophomores, the Golden Knights are familiar with their new conference foes and the newcomers may not have to be pressured into performing well right out of the gate.

"Obviously we will be better than last year," said 25th-year head coach Jay Bergman, whose Golden Knights finished 2006 with a 23-33 record. "We had so many freshmen and so many inexperienced players that when they reached about 35-40 games, which is a normal high school schedule, it was hard for them to keep going in the right direction. They just hit a brick wall.

"So from having gone through the league and understanding Conference USA better, I think we will be able to handle the situations much better as a team."

Pitching Staff
Although UCF returns three of its top four starters from a year ago, first-team All-C-USA honoree Tim Bascom will be tough to replace. Drafted in the sixth round by the San Diego Padres, Bascom had a 2.47 ERA with 90 strikeouts in 80.0 innings of work.

But the three student-athletes coming back are all sophomores who made at least nine starts in 2006. Mitch Houck went 3-4 with a 4.24 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 63.2 innings, while Kyle Sweat also was 3-4 with a 4.52 ERA. Mitch Herold concluded his first year at 1-4 and recorded a 5.23 ERA.

Also seeing time as a starter last year were junior Brett Bordwine (four), junior Taylor Meier (three) and senior Brian Brooks (one). Brooks has been used in many circumstances throughout his career, and ranks seventh in appearances in a UCF uniform with 63 and ninth in saves with five.

"I think we have about five or six guys who could make up the rotation, and the same goes for the bullpen," commented Bergman. "Houck, Sweat and Herold all got a lot of innings under their belts. We bring in Eric English from LSU, who can do a lot of things such as start, pitch in middle relief and possibly close.

"We also have to see what happens to junior Taylor Meier. He doesn't have his velocity back to 100 percent yet. He did pitch pretty well in the fall and was getting guys out with a below-average fastball. This is a guy who pitched against Oklahoma State in the NCAA Tournament as a freshman and did a great job, so if he can get all of his speed and strength back, he will be somebody to consider.

"Two freshmen who will both get a lot of innings in different situations are Austin Hudson and Carmine Giardina. And junior Jaager Good has made a huge jump. He's putting pressure on us coaches as to how we are going to use him. He didn't play that much his first two years, but he now could be considered a starter in the near future.

"Derek Abriola is in his final year, and he pitched very well for two-thirds of the season for us, and then had a good fall. Bordwine is a guy who gets overlooked a lot. He pitched great against UAB, Southern Miss and Rice, but he does have games where he struggles. If he can become consistent, he's another guy who can pitch in a number of roles for us.

"This is Brooks' fourth year, and he's someone who we've used as a spot starter, as a reliever and as a closer. He knows how to pitch and he's willing to go out there in any role to help this team. You can always expect a senior pitcher to step it up."

An area of concern for UCF could be that of the closer. Dominic Petracca saved eight games in 2006 and ranks fourth on the program's all-time list with 12. His absence creates a hole that could be filled by a number of candidates. The current roster has a combined nine saves, but no one has more than three in a season.

"It's going to be early in February until we determine our closer," said Bergman. "We haven't yet said, `This guy is going to be our closer.' It just depends because we are in a different situation than last year. It might be one of our biggest question marks because we have some depth on the pitching staff. We have to get our players in the right slots and that will happen in February.

"Junior Matt McClung and sophomore Justin Weiss have made some big improvements and could possibly be considered for the back-end of the bullpen. Sophomore Tyler Bunnell and freshman Matt Goodyear will get opportunities as well.

"I just think the one thing that is going to help our young pitchers is that we will be able to bring our new guys along like we did with Meier when he was a freshman. We will be able to give them chances for them to get some confidence and let them grow a bit. Whereas last year we had to roll Sweat, Herold and Houck out there and that's tough as a freshman to handle those starting situations. So we will give them opportunities and by the end of the season they will be very valuable members of the pitching staff. It will be interesting to see how this plays out."

Brian Brooks enters his final year at UCF, and he could see a lot more time on the mound in 2007.

Ryan Bono capped his UCF career by placing seventh all-time in games played (225), ninth in hits (217) and even first in hit by pitches (50). He made 51 starts behind the plate as a senior, but the Golden Knights did see sophomore Steve Stropp make five starts as part of their battery in 2006. Along with spending time as the designated hitter, he had a .295 batting average with five homers. More importantly, Stropp threw out five of six baserunners that tried to steal on him.

"We lost a starting catcher and a great contributor offensively for us in Ryan Bono," said Bergman. "But Steve caught a lot last year in a backup situation so he has gotten a good taste of what it's like. Sophomore Brandon Romans is coming in as well, so we will have at least two catchers that we are pretty comfortable with. We expect that as the season progresses, one of the two will break out. Sophomore Bryan Bennett is an excellent blocker and he works extremely hard. Shane Brown, a freshman from Winter Park, is improving his arm strength, but isn't tested yet. Tim Russell can be used as a designated hitter and a first baseman besides a catcher."

First Base
Kiko Vazquez made just six errors at first in 487 chances in his debut year as a Golden Knight. He batted .247 and drove in 21 runs with four homers while making 49 starts.

"Kiko is back and should be a much improved player," admitted Bergman. "He is another one of those players that got caught up in being a freshman last year. He is an excellent defensive first baseman and has to bat in the middle part of our lineup. Russell and freshman D.J. Bissell can both play first as well. Russell gives us a left-handed hitter in case we need more lefties in there."

Second Base
While senior Matt Horwath made 26 starts at second base, injuries hampered him late as he made just one start in UCF's last 13 games. He still managed to hit .265 with the stick and drive in 18 runs. Junior Dwayne Bailey, a product of South Florida Community College, could jump in and see a lot of time in the middle infield depending on what happens with Horwath.

"Right now, Dwayne is the leader in that area because we don't know the status of Matt," said Bergman. "With Dwayne being a switch-hitter, he gives us a chance to add another left-handed bat into the lineup. He brings experience and speed to this team. Kyle Maulbetsch can also play second, as well as Kyle Mills. Last year we were down to our third second baseman because of injuries and everything else. So we feel we are a lot stronger now that we have some depth at this position."

Similar to Vazquez at first, Eric Kallstrom made 49 starts at shortstop in his first year at UCF, and is on tap to be up the middle again for 2007. Horwath and Bailey could scoot over from second as Bergman expects all three could be interchangeable.

"Eric Kallstrom is our starting shortstop," said Bergman. "He was another first-year player that got tired at the end of the season. But he's put on some extra weight and is an excellent defensive shortstop. We also have Nick Choto, who is a switch-hitter and will give us a lot of flexibility, especially at the end of the season. He is an experienced player who was at Nova Southeastern, and can play short or second base. He's a small guy who runs well and makes contact."

Third Base
Matt Ray led UCF in stolen bases during his senior year, swiping 23 bags while hitting .307 in 50 starts, 32 of which were at third base. With his departure, the Golden Knights look towards a ninth-round draft pick to take his place. Orlando native Chris Duffy takes over the hot corner and brings an impressive bat with him.

"Chris Duffy is a very good offensive player," smiled Bergman. "He's going to bat in the middle part of the order, it's just a matter of how he is going to handle the defensive side of third base. He's a hard worker, but still a freshman. Maulbetsch and sophomore Ryan Williams may see some time at third, so we do have some options which we didn't have last year. We played Stropp and Vazquez at third during the Tulane series, which was very hard on those kids."

Tyson Auer enters his junior year and will once again patrol the UCF outfield. The center fielder led the team in hitting with a .323 average and was 17-for-18 in stolen bases. Junior transfer from Seminole Community College Ryan Richardson enters the picture in right field, while junior Matt Lambert, sophomore Chadd Hartman and Williams could vie for time in one of the corner outfield positions as well.

"We may have to platoon some guys in the outfield when we face a lefty," said Bergman. "But whoever gets hot and maintains some defensive stability in left will be a big priority for us. Ryan batted .300 for 75 percent of the season, but when he hit the wall he ended up around .290. So he had a pretty good year. And then Chadd had a hand operation, so he really didn't get going until the last third of the season. He showed signs of being able to do some things on a consistent basis for us. That's the one thing we are trying to get is some consistency out of that position."

Touching Home
One thing seems to be clear for the 2007 program: they have options at many different positions. Since they are still a relatively young team, that bodes well for UCF's second journey into one of the nation's premier baseball conferences. If the holes left from the 2006 squad fill up quickly this year, the Golden Knights could easily find themselves back in the NCAA Tournament.