John Denton's Knights Insider: UCF Closes 2011 But Should be Proud of Their Accomplishments

June 5, 2011

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By John Denton

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - The end for UCF's baseball team came, not quickly nor cleanly, but instead in a slow, torturous manner on Sunday at Dick Howser Stadium. And with their run in the NCAA Regional Tournament over, the Knights frustratingly had no one to blame but themselves on this sweltering afternoon.

Second-seeded UCF committed three errors, a balk and repeatedly failed to move runners over on bunt attempts - miscues that resulted in a whopping nine unearned runs - in a disappointing 12-5 loss to Alabama in semifinal play of the NCAA Regional Tournament.

``We had the momentum on our side and we thought it would keep carrying over, but little things kept happening and it was spiraling and spiraling on us,'' UCF junior catcher Beau Taylor said. ``It just kept going on us. (Alabama) is a good ballclub and they know how to get runs when everything is going their way.''

A second loss to third-seeded Alabama in three days ended UCF's run through its first NCAA Tournament in seven years. The Knights fell behind 4-1 early, fought back to get the game tied and then saw it slowly slip away because of numerous misplays. Alabama, which entered the game with a .276 team batting average, scored double digit runs for the first time in 25 games.

UCF entered the NCAA Tournament with its best defensive teams in school history, but it did not translate into the postseason. The Knights had a stretch of eight straight games without an error and hadn't made two errors in a game in more than a month, but had six errors in the three NCAA games.

``We played fundamentally sound all season, so if I had to draw it up, I certainly wouldn't have drawn it up this way,'' UCF senior first baseman Jonathan Griffin said. ``But we gave it our all.''

UCF (39-23) scored solo runs in each of the first four innings, but was only able to muster a monstrous home run by sophomore first baseman D.J. Hicks in the ninth inning the rest of the way. The game ended with Griffin, the hottest hitter in the tournament, striking out swinging.

Despite the disappointing ending, UCF's baseball program made monumental strides this season. Manager Terry Rooney made it a point of emphasis to return the Knights to national prominence when he took over three years ago, and UCF accomplished that feat this season. The Knights swept Florida and Stetson, beat Florida State and won eight games against ranked opponents. UCF had its best-ever finish in Conference USA and was back in the NCAA Regionals for the first time in seven seasons.

``Although today, our final game, wasn't our day, these guys have so much to be proud of in what they accomplished as a team. They helped to bring UCF baseball back to the NCAA Regionals after seven years,'' Rooney said. ``It's an unbelievable group of kids and I feel for them right now. Our ultimately goal was to get to Omaha (for the College World Series), and one game won't (define) this season. We'll continue to focus on the bigger picture and this group continued to represent UCF is a great way right to the end. I couldn't be prouder of them.''

Griffin, who hit 19 home runs this season, was two for five with a triple on Sunday and finished seven for 13 with three doubles, a home run and a triple in the NCAA Regional. He's likely to be a mid-round selection in this week's Major League Baseball Draft, but his focus on Sunday was on the legacy he left at UCF.

``Individually I put up some numbers, but I don't want to be remembered that way,'' the 6-foot-7, 250-pound first baseman said. ``I want to be remembered as the first baseman that helped paved the way for UCF.''

Erik Hempe had three hits, while Ryan Breen had his fourth and fifth hits of the Regional. Hicks added another two hits, making him six of 12 in the tournament. Taylor scored UCF's first run and drove in another run for a Knights team that had 12 hits.

Said Taylor: ``There are a lot of expectations for next year's team. This team has to get back to regionals and just push harder to get to the Super Regionals and get to Omaha.''

UCF fought back from a 4-1 deficit and worked to get the game tied 4-all, but fell behind again in frustrating fashion.

Alabama got a run in the fifth on a passed ball that slowly trickled away from Taylor. Then, the Tide made it 6-4 when Jared Reaves reached on a controversial call at first, was balked to second and scored on a single by Austen Smith. And `Bama's seventh run was set up by a second Darnell Sweeney error and pushed across by a perfectly executed sacrifice bunt.

With lefty closer Joe Rogers on the mound, UCF did not walk Alabama standout lefthander Taylor Dugas with first base open and the Tide's leading hitter made the Knights pay with a two-run single.

``Today wasn't our day and we just didn't play very good fundamental baseball, which is uncharacteristic of us,'' Rooney said. ``Collectively, in all areas we just didn't play as fundamentally sound as we have during the year. We had some individually strong performances, but regardless of the outcome I'm extremely proud of these guys.''

UCF got the strong start that it had hoped for in the first inning when Taylor tripled off the wall and scored on a sacrifice fly by Hicks. Griffin then tripled to the deepest part of the park, but he was left at third when Derek Luciano grounded out sharply to end the inning.

But the momentum would be short-lived as UCF starter Ben Lively was knocked around early and was a victim of some bad luck. Alabama's Taylor Dugas led off with a home run that hit halfway up on the light pole in right and Brock Bennett and Jared Reaves followed with hits to put the Tide up 2-0. Following a walk, Lively induced a grounder from Josh Rosecrans, but Sweeney couldn't handle what likely would have been a double play.

Lively, who had thrown five shutout innings against the Tide in a February victory for UCF, was removed after five batters and two earned runs. By the time the first inning was complete, the damage was four runs and three hits.

Senior reliever Nick Cicio came to the rescue for UCF, throwing five innings without giving up an earned run. The only run he allowed came in the fifth inning on a passed ball with the bases loaded. Cicio, who also pitched well in relief in Friday's opening game, struck out six and allowed five hits before turning it over to Chase Bradford in the sixth.

``In an outing like that, the team needs you and I knew I was just going to go out there and give it everything that I have,'' Cicio said. ``I gave it my all, but unfortunately it didn't turn out for us. I felt like I was making the pitches that I needed to when I needed to make them.''

UCF got within 4-3 with solo runs in the second and third innings, but there were chances to do even more damage. Travis Shreve couldn't move runners over with a bunt and the Knights stranded two runners in the second. And in the third, Breen tapped into a double play to end another rally.

The Knights pulled even in the fourth inning with an unearned run when Taylor hit a line drive to the warning track to plate Shreve, who had reached base on an error.

But that's as close as the Knights got as they failed to score in the final four innings against Alabama starter Jonathan Smart, a converted reliever. He scattered 11 hits over eight innings and struck out just one, but didn't walk a batter while throwing 117 pitches.

Despite the upsetting finish, Rooney said that UCF made it clear this season that it is a program on the rise and will have to be dealt with in the future.

``We certainly made great strides. I think it sends quite a message that UCF baseball is back and the credit belongs to these players.''

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