John Denton's Knights Insider: Baseball's Final Push

May 12, 2011

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - UCF's baseball team swept the season series against Florida, recently beat nationally-ranked Florida State, routed USF and took two of three early in the year against traditional Conference USA powerhouse Rice.

And now, none of it matters.

On the flip side, the Knights were swept by C-USA leader Southern Miss back in April and they lost important home series against middling conference teams Houston and Tulane.

And similarly, none of it matters now.

For all their highs and occasionally puzzling lows this season, UCF's baseball team heads into this weekend's series at UAB and next week's wrap-up series against Marshall (along with a key showdown at Stetson May 17) knowing that what comes next will likely decide their fate. UCF boasts an impressive 30-19 overall record with seven wins against nationally ranked teams. But it's the 7-11 mark in C-USA play that the Knights want to address starting Friday night against UAB to better their chances of getting into the NCAA Tournament.

The Knights head into the season's final stretch knowing that a strong late push could get them into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004. And the circumstances seem right for UCF to finish on a high note with UAB (27-22, 9-12) up this weekend and C-USA cellar-dwellers Marshall (18-27, 5-13) to close the season. But the Blazers are very talented on the mound and the Thundering Herd came close to sweeping ECU last weekend.

``This is our biggest push that we've got to make,'' UCF manager Terry Rooney said. ``We laid it all out for them so that everybody is clear about what I think we need to do to get to a (NCAA) regional. Everything is still in front of us. We've come up a little short on some of our conference games, no doubt about it. But at the end of the day, everything is still in front of us because of our RPI and the wins that we have had this season.''

Rooney has been preaching to his team of late the importance of the seventh, eighth and ninth innings as a way to hold onto victories and rally when down. UCF's defeat of FSU came after it rallied for seven runs in the seventh inning, the big blow being a mammoth grand slam by power-hitting first baseman Jonathan Griffin.

But too many times this season the Knights have been snake-bitten late in games by its inability to hold leads. Troubles in the bullpen, especially from the right side, have led to some of the woes. So heading into two highly important C-USA series, Rooney wants his Knights to focus on closing games and closing the season with a flair.

``The biggest thing is we need to finish games. We emphasize winning innings seven, eight and nine,'' he said. ``In conference play, we've just come up a little short. In some of the games that we should have won, we just haven't finished teams off or we haven't taken care of leads. Games between the seventh and ninth innings have been problems for us because we haven't held leads. We need a right-hander out of the bullpen to get guys out. We've tried a lot of guys in that role.''

UCF had a nice tune-up for the three-game UAB series with a 8-1 whipping of Bethune-Cookman Wednesday night after the Wildcats went 18-0 to claim the MEAC regular-season title. Ryan Breen had a three-run double, while seven UCF pitchers limited the Wildcats to just six hits.

Now, Rooney hopes that his Knights are ready to make a final push that will put them in the C-USA tournament and ultimately in the NCAA tourney.

``These last six conference games, we just have to play really well,'' he said. ``If we play to our ability, then we'll be in great shape. We have the ability to do that. Our RPI is No. 23 as of Thursday and if we can just get to the middle of the conference standings, I really think we'll be in good shape (to get into the NCAAs).''

John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at jdenton@athletics.ucf.edu.