Sophomore Darnell Sweeney went on a roller coaster ride in the final two innings Tuesday. After committing an error at shortstop that led to No. 4 Florida breaking a 2-2 tie in the eighth, Sweeney quickly redeemed himself in the ninth by lining a two-out, two-run double to center to give UCF (20-9) a 4-3 victory in Gainesville.
“It was such a big win for us because we were able to bounce back (after the Southern Miss series). Every time we lose we find a way to come back in the next game and play really hard,” said Sweeney. “You have to get that big hit and that’s what we did today, we got the big hit and came out with a win.”
The victory was UCF’s fourth over a top-five team since 2008, and the Knights are now 5-5 against ranked opponents this season as Tuesday marked their ninth-straight game vs. a nationally-ranked program.
“It certainly was a very big win especially because of what happened this past weekend,” said head coach Terry Rooney. “To come in here and do that takes a lot of confidence and poise. This team is very special.”
Following Sweeney’s double to dead-center in the ninth, UCF still needed to get three outs. In stepped center fielder Ronnie Richardson. With closer Joe Rogers out from working 4.0 innings Sunday, Richardson entered for his third appearance on the mound as a Knight, and his first in a save situation. He wasted little time in retiring Florida’s 2-4 hitters to lock down the win over the Gators (24-6).
“Coach Rooney told me that if we went ahead I would have the ninth,” said Richardson. “When Darnell had that big hit I got the call. So I just went out there and tried to smother them, pound the strike zone and make them hit my pitch.”
Ryan Breen and Erik Hempe both clouted solo homers to erase an early 2-0 deficit as both teams finished with seven hits. Breen and Sweeney paced the Knights with two hits apiece.
The UCF bullpen shined as well Tuesday, as a total of six relievers combined to pitch 7.0 innings, surrendering six hits, walking one and striking out four.
Making his second-career start after earning a win over No. 20 Stetson last week, UCF righty Chase Bradford had nobody on, two outs and two strikes in the first inning but ended up hitting a batter and issuing two walks to load the bases. Florida took advantage when designated hitter Austin Maddox lined a two-run single to center.
After a pair of diving plays on defense from Sweeney and left fielder Breen in the second, Breen then dug in to leadoff the third and promptly drove his first homer of the year into the left-field bleachers against lefty Alex Panteliodis.
Now trailing 2-1, UCF went to the pen in the bottom of the third for Bryan Brown and the junior would strand two runners to keep it at a one-run game. In the fourth, he allowed the first two to reach base and when Nick Cicio was called in, the southpaw left them both on base by retiring the next three batters.
Cicio’s performance on the mound kept UCF close, and it would pay off in the fifth when Hempe demolished a 2-1 offering to left for his second homer of the year. Following a two-base error that put Breen at second with one out, Maddox came on to pitch and issued a walk to Austin Johnston. With two on and one down, Maddox, though, eventually escaped unharmed.
Unable to take the lead in the fifth, UCF watched as UF placed two on base with one away in the sixth but Matt Collins induced Nolan Fontana to fly out to center and Daniel Pigott to line out to short.
As the bullpens continued to battle, the Knights came within feet of making it 3-2 in the eighth only to have Jonathan Griffin’s drive to dead center field be caught at the fence by Tyler Thompson. Florida then returned to the plate for the home half where a two-out, two-strike RBI single by pinch-hitter Jeff Moyer produced an unearned run, breaking the 2-2 tie.
That did not affect the UCF bats in the top of the ninth. A leadoff walk to Beau Taylor got things started and Breen would drop a one-out single into left-center. Although closer Anthony DeSclafani got a strikeout, Sweeney hammered a 1-0 pitch over the head of Thompson in center, bringing around both runners to give UCF its first lead. And when Richardson mowed down Florida in the bottom of the ninth including two strikeouts, the Knights had their 20th win of the year.
UCF gets back into Conference USA play this weekend when it hosts Tulane beginning Friday at 6:30 p.m.