Given the scouting report on Stony Brook starting pitcher Brandon McNitt early Saturday morning and told he could expect fastballs ranging from 83-to-85 miles per hour, UCF slugger Jeramy Matos playfully asked, “Does anybody here throw hard?”
Matos, a free-swinging junior from Lake Worth, crushed a hanging slider some 400 feet in the sixth inning Saturday night to break a 5-all tie and lift UCF to a 9-8 defeat of Stony Brook in the NCAA Regional.
Matos’ fifth home run of the season and a jaw-dropping catch by senior right fielder Alex Friedrich in the eighth inning to preserve the lead put the second-seeded Knights (45-15) one win away from winning the regional and advancing to a Super Regional for the first time in school history.
The Knights will play the winner of the Missouri State-Stony Brook Sunday night at 7 p.m. at Alex Rodriguez Park at Mark Light Field. Missouri State, 2-1 losers to UCF on Friday, stunningly eliminated top-seeded Miami earlier on Saturday.
“From our standpoint, we had a bunch of clutch plays, and I couldn’t be prouder of our kids,” UCF head coach Terry Rooney said. “This is where you want to be — where somebody has to beat you twice. But at the end of the day we just have to play one game at a time. … They’re at a point where they expect to win this regional. They do, and that’s what everybody’s mindset has to be. These kids came in here on a mission.”
Friedrich, UCF’s best defensive player all season, made arguably the most important play of the season in the eighth inning when he jumped at the wall and caught a laser off the bat of Stony Brook slugger William Carmona. The catch kept a runner at second base and preserved UCF’s one-run lead at the time. It was the second stellar defensive play of the series for Friedrich, who had a diving catch near the foul line in Friday’s victory.
“Off the bat it sounded pretty well-hit, but I thought he might have gotten jammed a little bit. I took a couple of steps back (before the pitch) because the wind was howling and I didn’t want to get burned,” Friedrich said. “I heard (centerfielder) Ronnie (Richardson) talking to me the whole way. I heard gravel (from the warning track) and then I heard fence. I have to give Ronnie for talking me through that play.”
In a season already filled with so many firsts, the Knights can accomplish another first on Sunday if they can win and move onto next week’s Super Regional.
“It’s a big advantage. Instead of having to play a doubleheader (on Sunday), we just have to play one game,” Matos said. “If we lose, we have another day. But they are going to be in the sun all day, and it’s all teed up for us. We just have to take care of our business.”
UCF raced to a 5-0 lead in the first two innings thanks to a Stony Brook throwing error and a three-run home run by junior shortstop Darnell Sweeney. Stony Brook (47-12) tied the game at 5-all to set the stage for Matos’ heroics.
Matos, a 6-foot-2, 210-pounder, is somewhat of an all-or-nothing hitter who rarely gets cheated on swings. He entered his decisive sixth inning at-bat with more strikeouts (41) than hits (32), but he certainly didn’t miss a slider than hung out over the plate. The blast to left-center not only sailed over the 365-foot marker, but cleared the 30-foot scoreboard beyond the fence. It put UCF up 8-5 and energized the more than 1,000 UCF fans who made the three-hour drive from Orlando to support the Knights.
“I was looking for an off-speed pitch because that’s what they’ve been throwing me. I saw the hanger and threw my hands at it. I realized it was hit pretty well,” Matos said. “It’s been a little tough (seeing so many off-speed pitches), so I’ve been trying to let the ball get deep because I have quick hands and hit the ball to the opposite field.”
After Matos’ blast, UCF added an insurance run that proved to be the difference in the game. Friday hero Ronnie Richardson led off with a walk, stole second, was sacrificed to third by Sweeney and driven home by Chris Taladay. It was Taladay who had the game-winning hit on Friday as well.
Said Matos: “We knew those few runs weren’t enough, especially in college baseball. That sacrifice fly by Taladay with Darnell Sweeneymoving (Richardson) over was huge. That was a big run for us.'”
Lefty Chris Matulis, one of the heroes from Friday with his first collegiate save, pitched five innings in relief of starter Ray Hanson on Saturday. He yielded four runs and four hits, while striking out two and walking two.
Joe Rogers, who worked out of a bases loaded jam on Friday, got the save on Saturday. He struck out two in the inning and his 13th save of the season came with the tying run on second base.
UCF loaded the bases in the first and got two runs when Stony Brook second baseman Maxx Tissenbaum hurried a throw on a double-play ball. The errant throw staked the Knights to a 2-0 lead.
Sweeney made Stony Brook pay for pitching around Richardson in the second inning, hitting a 0-2 fastball over the right field wall to give the Knights a commanding 5-0 lead. A Miramar native, Sweeney talked in the days before the regional about it being a dream come true to play a postseason series near his South Florida home.
“We talked this afternoon at our team meal, and I told the kids that we’d have to find a different way to win. I really believed that,” Rooney said. “It was 2-1 yesterday and it was (high-scoring), but another one-run game today. We found a way.”
The 5-0 lead for UCF would be short-lived as Stony Brook leadoff hitter Travis Jankowski blasted a three-run home run in the second inning and slugger William Carmona doubled in two runs in the fourth.
That just set the stage for Matos’ tiebreaking home run, Friedrich’s clutch catch and Rogers’ heroics in the ninth inning. Now, the Knights on the verge of making some school history if they can win on Sunday.
“These guys showed up this year when they got back (from the summer break) on a mission,” Rooney said. “We had a bunch of guys who had the opportunity to sign professional baseball contracts and they didn’t. This group of kids got UCF back to a NCAA Regional last year. They all came back on a mission to put themselves in position to win a regional. It’s all about the kids and they’ve done a great job so far.”