John Denton's Knights Insider: Defense Leads to Victories

May 24, 2011

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - During a recent five-game winning streak, UCF's surging baseball team made a vow that it wouldn't shave facial hair until there was a loss, prompting some interesting looks with mustaches, goatees and scraggly beards.

In baseball - more so than any sport, really - you don't mess with the streak. In a similar vain, the Knights might want to keep up whatever they are doing of late during a run of stellar defense that has led to a stirring late-season surge.

Over the last 11 games of the regular season, the Knights committed just one error defensively and it came on a throw while trying to make a spectacular play. There are no school records for such a streak, but in the eyes of many on the UCF baseball team the run of spotless play has been downright historic.

And in many respects, the improved defensive play has helped the Knights go into Wednesday's Conference USA Championship presented by Trustmark riding a wave of impressive momentum. UCF won nine of its last 12 games, beating rivals USF and Stetson, nationally ranked Florida State, sweeping UAB and taking two of three from Marshall to close the regular season.

``I don't think our guys care who they are playing because we're going in knowing we can win this tournament and we're expecting to win it,'' said UCF manager Terry Rooney's whose fourth-seeded Knights open pool play against Memphis on Wednesday. ``We're fortunate that the teams on our side (of the bracket) we've played pretty well against them, but everybody in our league is good. But we're going there expecting to win.''

UCF has that confidence because D.J. Hicks (.338 average, 13 home runs) and Jonathan Griffin (.329 average, 16 home runs) make up one of the most potent power duos in the conference. And because the Knights are pitching as well as they have all season, especially out of the bullpen with closer Joe Rogers (four wins, eight saves) and setup men Nick Cicio (2.45 ERA) and Johnny Sedlock (2.16 ERA).

But the Knights' confidence is also soaring because of the way the team has played defense of late. UCF put together an incredible stretch of eight-consecutive games late in the season without an error defensively. That streak ended last Thursday night on a throwing error by Derek Luciano, but the Knights promptly closed the season with two more games of errorless baseball.

``Really, defense is just like hitting and it's all about confidence,'' said UCF coach Jeff Palumbo, who works primarily with the Knights' infielders. ``Coming out of that Houston series where we made some errors at key times, we've played much better over the last 11 games. We refocused a little bit on what we needed to do. The credit goes to the guys for buying in and playing with confidence.''

That emphasis on defense has been more important than ever this season with the NCAA's departure from aluminum bats and the introduction of composite bats. Runs are down across the board and scores are tighter than ever, putting a great emphasis on fundamental play. At UCF for example, the Knights averaged 8.34 runs last season compared to 6.78 runs this season. They allowed just 4.57 runs a game this season compared to 6.8 a game last season.

With home runs also dramatically down - 78 last year for the Knights compared to 52 this year - games have been tighter than ever. UCF was 9-4 in one-run games this season, winning six of the last seven of them. And undoubtedly a big reason for that is because they could depend on their play defensively.

``All you had to do was look at the first couple of weeks in college baseball and see that the scores were really tight. And anytime it's like that everything gets magnified like errors, sac bunts and walking guys,'' Palumbo said. ``When it came down to it defensively we needed guys to make plays at key times. Guys have worked hard to understand that if you can play well in all three phases of the game - especially now with the way the bats are - you can win a lot of games.''

The Knights are better defensively because of some dramatic individual improvements. Sophomore shortstop Darnell Sweeney cut his errors in half this season and boosted his fielding percentage from .905 last season to .948 this year. Second baseman Travis Shreve has fortified the middle of the infield with a .965 fielding percentage, while catcher Beau Taylor and center fielder Ronnie Richardson each committed just one error all season.

Said Griffin, UCF's 6-foot-7 first baseman: ``There's just a lot of momentum on this team right now. We're going good right now. I honestly didn't know that (errorless) stat because it's not something we talk about.''

Rooney feels the growth defensively combined with the consistency of the Knights' hitting makes them a favorite to win the Conference USA tournament this week in Pearl, Miss. The Knights are 19th in the country in RPI and own eight wins against nationally-ranked teams, giving them the belief they can win it all this week.

``You can get in a groove in anything and (defense) is really just confidence and we're playing with so much confidence right now. We're playing our best baseball of the year,'' Rooney said. ``At the end of the day, we're going up there playing for a ring. I've told them that Part One of the season is over with, Part Two is the conference tournament and Part Three is the NCAA Tournament. Our focus is to try to go and win a championship.''

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