Brian Adkins tossed 3.0 scoreless innings of relief and Joe Rogers pitched a perfect ninth to deliver a 5-4 victory at No. 23 Rice Sunday. Combined with a 7-2 triumph on Friday, the Knights (18-6, 2-1) posted their first series win over the Owls (16-11, 1-2), and now look ahead to a home-and-home with No. 28 Stetson beginning Tuesday in Orlando.
“That was a tremendous team effort for the entire weekend,” said head coach Terry Rooney. “We call every Sunday `Championship Sunday.’ Regardless of the first two days, Sunday is always the most important game of the series. For today’s game, all you have to do is look at the back-and-forth of the score, and then to see us hold on late on the road certainly speaks volumes about the confidence and presence of our team.”
It was the first time UCF won its C-USA opening series since 2006 when it took two of three vs. Marshall. Dating back to last year, the Knights have now claimed the series in each of their last two C-USA road trips (also defeated Tulane in New Orleans to end the 2010 campaign).
Adkins entered in the fourth inning in a bases-loaded jam with Rice leading 3-2 and proceeded to shut down the Owls. The lefty, who had only started midweek games until Sunday, moved his record to 4-1 thanks to 3.0 innings, three hits, no runs, no walks and one strikeout.
“Basically I was just trying to fill up the zone and once again the defense played great behind me,” said Adkins. “My mindset was a little bit different coming out of the pen. But in each individual inning I was trying to close out the game. Each inning was its own entity for me, so I was just trying to go hitter by hitter.”
Adkins gave way to Rogers in the seventh who picked up his fifth save of the year, highlighted by the southpaw retiring the 2-4 hitters in the ninth.
“I was mentally prepared in the bullpen when I saw how well Brian pitched,” said Rogers. “It was cool how (facing possible No. 1 MLB pick Anthony Rendon in the ninth) was drawn up. I wanted to go after Rendon because he is potentially a high-draft pick, so I threw him a two-seamer and I guess it just tailed on him and he hit it to Darnell Sweeney at short. He made a great play to end it. And Beau Taylor did an excellent job behind the plate for me.”
Helping out the pitching staff, Jonathan Griffin banged out three hits, Ronnie Richardson reached four times with two hits and a pair of walks and D.J. Hicks and Erik Hempe also rapped out two hits.
Switch-hitting Richardson greeted Rice righty Matthew Reckling rudely right away as he tripled to the left-center gap in the first with one out. Even though Darnell Sweeney fell behind in the count, the shortstop still successfully delivered a two-strike pitch to the right side as the RBI groundout made it 1-0.
It would take until the fourth inning for either team to produce the next scoring chance, and it came from the Knights who loaded the bases with one down on singles from Hicks and Griffin as well as a walk to Taylor. Hempe followed suit with an infield single up the middle to allow each runner to move up a base, however that would be the only runner to touch home as Reckling struck out Derek Luciano and induced Travis Shreve to pop up in foul ground to keep it at 2-0.
Just like the top half, though, Rice put together an opportunity in the home half with one-out singles to place runners at the corners and earned a sac fly out of Craig Manuel. The Owls then filled the bags with two outs thanks to a pair of walks and Derek Hamilton made Ray Hanson pay with a two-strike, two-run single to left. By not getting out of the inning, Hanson was relieved by Adkins who needed just one pitch to retire Keenan Cook.
Richardson hoped to have an answer in the fifth, reaching base for the third-straight time by drawing a walk and stealing second with one away. Although Chris Taladay grounded out, Reckling threw one in the dirt to permit Richardson to score and tie it up, 3-3.
The chances kept coming in the top of the sixth on back-to-back one-out singles from Hempe and Luciano vs. reliever John Simms. Shreve dug in to try and give the Knights the lead and was given the signal to lay down a delayed squeeze bunt. The second baseman’s attempt went in front of catcher Manuel who looked back Hempe at third once but as soon as he turned and threw to first, Hempe easily sprinted in for UCF’s fourth run.
Now up 4-3 in the sixth, Simms could not find the strike zone, issuing three-straight walks after the bunt with Taladay getting credit for the RBI which pushed the lead to 5-3.
That two-run cushion was in danger in the bottom of the sixth, but after a two-out double by Hamilton, Luciano made a diving snag on a grounder at third and threw out pinch-hitter Michael Aquino at first to retire the side. In the seventh, though, a Michael Fuda two-out bunt single forced UCF to go to the pen as Rogers replaced Adkins. And on a 2-2 pitch, Manuel waved at a pitch at the letters and the threat was over.
Only Rice would not quit. Shane Hoelscher opened the eighth by reaching second on an error, and eventually the Owls had runners at first and third and no outs. After Hamilton flew out to shallow right, a RBI fielder’s choice from Aquino cut Rice’s deficit in half and the game reached the ninth with UCF clinging to a 5-4 advantage.
With the heart of the order coming up, Rogers did not permit an Owl to reach base, striking out J.T. Chargois, getting a 1-3 groundout from Fuda and making Rendon send a 3-1 pitch to short where Sweeney easily gloved it and threw to first for the final out.