UCF’s Jonathan Griffin finally got the fastball that he had been looking for all day. And the 6-foot-7 power-hitting first baseman knew just what to do with the pitch that was over the heart of the plate.
Griffin hit a towering, three-run blast in the eighth inning on Thursday to lift the surging Knights past UAB 6-4 in day two of pool play of the Conference USA tournament in Pearl, Miss.
Griffin led C-USA in home runs during the regular season with 16, and his 18th (second in two days) was never in question when it left the bat. The shot beyond center field traveled in excess of 400 feet and proved to be just the blast that the Knights (38-20) needed for the come-from-behind victory.
“This is obviously the biggest game that we’ve played this year, so that’s probably the biggest home run that I’ve hit in my life,” said Griffin, a senior from Bradenton.
UCF has now beaten Memphis and UAB in pool play and can secure a berth into Saturday’s C-USA championship game by defeating traditional powerhouse Rice on Friday, or simply have Rice lose to Memphis Thursday. But they should head into Friday’s game brimming with plenty of confidence.
UCF took two of three from Rice earlier in the season, and the Knights have won nine of their last 10 games. With a Top-20 RPI, they also have put themselves in position to nab a bid in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004.
“We’re playing with a lot of confidence and our guys want to do everything that they can now to try and win a championship,” said UCF manager Terry Rooney, whose Knights have won eight games this season against nationally-ranked teams. “We’ve proven that we’re one of the best teams in the country and now it’s all about going out and playing to win a championship.”
UCF’s left-handed bullpen duo of Nick Cicio and Joe Rogers made sure that Griffin’s home run stood up on Thursday. Cicio was again masterful in relief, throwing one-hit ball over three innings in relief of starter Danny Winkler. Rogers then picked up his ninth save of the season, striking out the final two batters of the game on inside fastballs.
“Winkler did a tremendous job battling all day and then our three lefties out of the bullpen – (Johnny) Sedlock, Cicio and Rogers – came through again. (On Wednesday) it was Sedlock and (on Thursday) it was Cicio and Rogers,” Rooney said. “There are a lot of teams out there that struggle to find one good lefty and we’re fortunate to have a bunch of them. They’ve done a great job for us.”
UAB starter Dillon Napoleon kept UCF off-balance most of the day with an array of changeups, limiting the Knights to just three hits through the first seven innings. Trailing 4-3, the Knights jump-started things with consecutive hits by Ronnie Richardson, Beau Taylor and D.J. Hicks.
Richardson was thrown out at third base for the second out of the inning, but Griffin followed up the two-strike singles by Taylor and Hicks with a behemoth home run that was never in question. The slugger was happy to see a fastball after seeing a variety of changeups and breaking balls most of the day.
“I was sitting on one pitch, but I was just trying to make sure that I saw the ball well again,” Griffin said. “I didn’t want to do too much with the ball and just try to get something up in the zone that I could hit.”
And did Griffin know the ball was gone as soon as it left the bat?
“Oh yeah, I knew as soon as I made contact with it that it had a good shot of going out,” Griffin said with a chuckle. “We battled so hard that inning. For Beau Taylor and D.J. to get those two-strike hits, those were the key at-bats to the inning. My at-bat obviously drove them in, but for them to keep battling and getting on base was huge for us.”
Griffin said the Knights’ late-season run has their confidence soaring, and they’ll be ready come Friday against Rice.
“Rice is a very good baseball team, but we’ve seen them three times this year and we know exactly what to expect from them,” said Griffin, who now has 53 RBI on the season. “We’ll come ready to play. We’ll slow the game down and take it pitch by pitch. But we have a lot of confidence now.”
John Denton’s Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.