On a brisk day in Birmingham, UCF guaranteed itself a spot in the eight-team Conference USA Championship field by knocking off UAB, 18-6, in eight innings Sunday. With the win, the Knights improved to 33-19 on the year and 10-11 in C-USA as they swept the Blazers (27-25, 9-15) for the first time in program history.
The 10 C-USA victories are tied with last year’s squad for UCF’s most league wins since joining C-USA, which consistently ranks as one of the top-five conferences in the nation, in 2006.
“This was a great weekend in a weekend where we needed to play great,” said head coach Terry Rooney. “It was a total team effort and we saw a little bit of everything, including a shutout yesterday, 18 runs today and exceptional defense. We played well in every facet in these three games. It was an incredible job by our guys when we needed to play our best baseball.
“When we got back as a team in January, we talked about getting better throughout the year and the goal is to play our best baseball at the end of the season. That’s what great teams do. We have a long way to go and a very important week ahead of us with four games to potentially solidify us an NCAA at-large program. However we are playing a very good brand of baseball right now.”
UCF’s mind-boggling streak of errorless ball continued Sunday where it did not have a miscue for the seventh-straight game. In all, the streak has lasted 68.2 innings dating back to the second inning at South Florida May 3.
And at the plate, UCF pounded out a season-high 20 hits while matching its top run production of the year (won 18-0 vs. Boston College March 9). It was the most runs and hits in a C-USA contest by the Knights since a 29-9 win at UAB April 24, 2009, when they set a school record for runs and hits (28) in a game.
Of those 20 hits, 18 of them were singles. Beau Taylor was a perfect 4-for-4 with three RBI, D.J. Hicks went 4-for-6 with a pair of RBI and Erik Hempe and Ryan Breen both totaled three hits.
“It was an awesome weekend and an entire team effort. If it wasn’t for this team producing all of those hits I wouldn’t have been able to get four of them,” said Taylor. “The sweep is huge because we haven’t had one in conference all year. It helps us keep rolling into next week at Stetson and against Marshall.”
UAB starting righty Michael Busby had trouble finding the zone in the top of the first, plunking Ronnie Richardson and Taylor to kick off the afternoon. With two on and no outs, Hicks kept his hot bat rolling by grounding a RBI single up the middle, and Derek Luciano doubled the lead to 2-0 with a sacrifice fly to right. Now with just a man on first and two down, Hempe extended the inning with a single and Breen pushed it to 3-0 with a base hit to center to plate Hicks.
Trailing by three, the Blazers went to the pen to start the second and Ben Bullard watched as Taylor dropped a two-run single inside the left-field line, scoring Darnell Sweeney and Travis Shreve who were moved into scoring position on a sac bunt by Richardson.
Pitching with a 5-0 cushion, starter Chase Bradford allowed a RBI single that went about 15 feet off the bat of Nick Crawford in the bottom of the second. But he kept UAB to just the one run, stranding two on base when Coy Arrowood fouled out to Hempe in right.
The Knights’ bats returned in the third to try and stretch their lead, loading the bases with no outs against Mark McKinley. However a grounder back to the mound and two strikeouts permitted McKinley to escape the toughest of jams. With UCF failing to put the game away, UAB looked to ride its momentum in the home half of the third and succeeded with three runs to close it to 5-4.
For the fourth-straight inning, though, UCF got the leadoff man aboard and put together a scoring opportunity with a walk to Taylor and a double by Jonathan Griffin, who stayed on a 0-2 pitch to send it to left. McKinley pitched around Luciano to get it to 3-0 before the call for an intentional walk was made, only the right-hander threw it to the backstop and Taylor scampered home.
Looking for more in the fourth, Breen and Shreve both delivered RBI singles and Sweeney wrapped up the five-run frame with a two-run single of his own, and the Black and Gold was back in control at 10-4.
Although Bradford was able to put up zeroes in the fourth and fifth, he could not get out of the sixth where UAB tallied a pair of two-out runs. The Knights went to the pen for Matt Collins and the tall righty struck out Jamal Austin, leaving two Blazers on base.
After a perfect inning by southpaw Johnny Sedlock, UCF entered the box in the eighth vs. Jacob German who hit Hempe and Shreve and gave up a single to Breen. With the bases jammed and no outs, Sweeney produced a sac fly to right, Richardson chopped a RBI single over John Frost at first and Taylor lined a run-scoring base hit into center. That made it 13-6 and UAB made the decision to go for its seventh pitcher of the day.
When David Hayes toed the rubber, Hicks, Luciano and Hempe all rapped out RBI hits to finish off the eight-run eighth, and Sedlock held UAB scoreless in its final at-bat to preserve the sweep.
UCF has one more road contest before finishing up the regular season at home vs. Marshall Thursday-Saturday as it heads to No. 15 Stetson Tuesday in a makeup game scheduled for 6:30 p.m. The C-USA Championship will take place May 25-29 in Pearl, Miss.