Winning the Last Three

April 5, 2012

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By John Denton, Knights Insider

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - No. 9 Miami had just cut the score to 2-1 in the seventh inning, had the tying run on third base, the potential go-ahead run at the plate and All-American Peter O'Brien in the on-deck circle.

Whereas this would have been a daunting scenario to most teams, No. 14 UCF simply did what it has done all season: Turn the game over to the dominant one-two punch of Roman Madrid and Joe Rogers out of the bullpen to quiet the uprising.

Mixing his slider and upper 80s fastball beautifully, Madrid struck out Dale Carey and got O'Brien to bounce the ball back to the mound. Sparked by Madrid's gusty work in the clutch, UCF tacked on two more runs and Madrid and Rogers made it stand up with shutout work in the eighth and ninth innings.

UCF head coach Terry Rooney constantly preaches to his team the importance of winning the last three innings. That's been a regular occurrence this season with the nearly perfect work of the Knights' bullpen. They have been so good that there's an air of confidence that if the Knights can take an early lead that the victory is in the bag.

``With a bullpen like ours, there's no doubt in my mind every game that we're winning the last three innings,'' Madrid said.

Added UCF slugger D.J. Hicks: ``Knowing that we have a lead in the fifth, sixth or seventh innings, that's pretty much hands down, game over for us. With guys like Roman and Rogers in the `pen, when they come in, it's pretty much game over.''

The work of the bullpen on Wednesday allowed UCF to defeat Miami 4-1 for the Knights' biggest victory of the season. It was UCF's 11th victory in the past 12 games, improving its record to 24-6 overall. The Knights, 5-1 in Conference USA play and atop the league, hope that their bullpen can keep up the solid work this weekend when they host UAB. Friday's first pitch is at 6:30, while Saturday and Sunday's games start at 4 p.m. and 11 a.m.

``Our bullpen has been awesome all season,'' Rooney said. ``We talk all the time about winning the last three innings and they are such a big part of us doing that. It starts in the middle innings with what Garrett Nuss, Eric Skoglund and Jimmy Reed have done. And with Joe and Roman at the end, that's as good a left-right combination as you are going to see in the country. So we have a lot of confidence with that group.''

UCF should have confidence in that group considering the eye-popping numbers the bullpen has put up so far this season. Madrid, a hard-throwing JUCO transfer from Texas, has a 0.40 ERA with 30 strikeouts in 22 2/3 innings. Rogers has seven saves, a 0.83 ERA and a 3-0 record. Nuss (1-0, 1.59 ERA), Skoglund (4-1, 1.98 ERA) and Reed (2.61 ERA) have been solid set-up men. Even more impressive, check out these miniscule batting averages against each pitcher: Rogers (.167), Madrid (.186), Nuss (.198), Skoglund (.245) and Reed (.268).

``We've got a good closer in Joe Rogers and setup man in Madrid. If we have a lead and it's the sixth inning, the door is pretty much shut,'' said Skoglund, who has split his time between starting and the bullpen. ``We have some power guys who can shut it down and we have a deep staff.''

Versatility and variety are usually the keys to having a strong bullpen. Nuss and Skoglund, standout freshmen, offer a righty-lefty combination able of throwing long relief. Reed is a side-arming southpaw who usually makes life miserable for left-handed hitters.

Madrid can get strikeouts with either his slider or his fastball. And then there's Rogers, who can blow hitters away with a fastball that usually ranges between 89 and 93 miles per hour. Rogers has struck out 25 batters in 21 2/3 innings pitched.

Others such as Chris Matulis (4-0, 2.10 ERA), Ray Hanson (2-1, 1.67 ERA), Matt Collins, Greg Cooke and Bryan Brown have also given the Knights solid contributions out of the bullpen.

``I think we have a little bit of everything in our `pen,'' Rogers said. `` Roman and I provide a little more (velocity). He's a righty and I'm lefty. Then, there are crafty guys like Jimmy Reed and freshmen like Nuss and Skoglund. I just think we have a good balance of things out of our pen.''

Added Rooney: ``You have to have different looks and we've got that. Jimmy Reed gives us the pitch-ability lefty from a tough arm slot and Joe comes at you from 89 to 93 miles per hour. Roman throws hard and has that good slider. At the end of games teams have to prepare for three completely different pitchers.''

And as often the case with baseball teams, some of the biggest characters on the squad hail from the bullpen. After all, UCF's relievers usually have four-to-five innings to kill before they go on call late in games.

Skoglund, a rail-thin 6-foot-7 freshman from Sarasota, crafted a dance to the Drake and Lil' Wayne music that is played when Ronnie Richardson comes to bat, and he's kept it going all season. And many of the relief pitchers have been known to wear paper drinking cups over their ears and hat to inspire rallies.

``Everyone in our group is kind of a prankster in their own way. Nuss has a loose mentality and he's really funny to be around. And Skoglund has this dance, so those guys keep it loose,'' said Rogers, almost unanimously picked as the biggest jokester of the bullpen. ``We try to stay in the first four or five innings by egging on our teammates and cracking jokes in the dugout. But once we get called down to the bullpen you have to get into your own zone. We keep it loose in the bullpen, in the dugout and the locker room. It's a pretty funny crew, but we know when it time to get serious.''