UCF (34-19) used a six-run third inning and a tough save from closer Joe Rogers to knock off No. 21 Stetson, 7-6, in DeLand Tuesday. It was the Knights’ 10th-consecutive victory over the Hatters (39-14) dating back to 2007, and they will close out the regular-season at home Thursday-Saturday vs. Marshall.
“At this time of year it’s all about the bottom line,” said head coach Terry Rooney. “Throughout the year it’s about the process, but right now to get to where we need to get to, it’s about the bottom line. And we found a way to hold on to the lead and get it done.”
All six runs in the third occurred on two-strike base hits, highlighted by a three-run home run by D.J. Hicks and a two-run blast by Erik Hempe. It was Hicks’ 13th round-tripper of the year and his 21st in two full seasons as a Knight, while Hempe’s was his fifth of 2011 and he went on to finish the night 4-for-5 with two RBI and three doubles, which were one shy of the school record (scoring change after the game changed Hempe’s hits from three to four).
“I knew it was gone. I got a good piece and got it up in the jet stream,” described Hempe of his third-inning home run. “Tonight was a big game for us. They’ve been pretty hot, but we had that one good inning that helped us get the win.”
Tuesday’s contest was a makeup game with this year’s Atlantic Sun regular-season champions after March 30 was rained out.
The Knights completed the victory by outhitting the Hatters, 13-11, and did not commit an error in their eighth-straight game, a streak that has lasted 77.2 innings.
Junior righty Ray Hanson improved to 4-2 in his 11th start of the year, tossing 5.0 innings with two strikeouts and two runs against on only three hits. Rogers nabbed his eighth save of 2011 by pitching the final 1.1 innings. The eight saves match his total as a freshman in 2010, while they are tied for third on the UCF single-season list.
Stetson closer Robbie Powell got the nod to make his second start of the year Tuesday, and worked into one-out trouble in the top of the second on a double from Hempe and a walk to Ryan Breen. The Knights then tried a hit-and-run on the first pitch only to have Powell earn a lineout double play to end the stanza. And the Hatters responded immediately when Nick Rickles homered to leadoff the home half of the second vs. Hanson.
Trailing 1-0, UCF decided to try and put the game away in the third, and it all began when Ronnie Richardson was plunked on a full count. After the center fielder stole second, Beau Taylor singled to left to get runners at the corners with one away, however Hicks fell behind in the count 1-2. That did not affect UCF’s top hitter, who sent a fly ball deep enough to left to get the run home. Only it kept carrying and Jeff Simpson, who started in on the ball, ran out of room as it just cleared the fence for a three-run jack.
And UCF was clearly not content with a 3-1 lead. With the bases now empty, Jonathan Griffin drilled a single to left and Derek Luciano hammered a 2-2 pitch into the left-center gap for a RBI double to make it 4-1. Capping off the six-run inning, Hempe elegantly destroyed a 2-2 offering towards the old Stetson football stadium in left.
The Knights carried the 6-1 advantage into the fifth where a leadoff double from Hempe led to a run as Breen grounded out to the right side to move him over and Travis Shreve added a sacrifice fly to right.
Halfway through the evening, Stetson looked to halt UCF’s momentum in the bottom of the fifth on a RBI groundout by Mitchel Brennan, cutting it to 7-2. One inning later, the home team placed two aboard with one down vs. reliever Ben Lively who got the second out on a fielder’s choice. Facing Trey Blackman with runners at first and third, the catcher appeared to swing at strike three and the entire field started heading for the dugouts. But an appeal ruled that he did not go around, and Blackman proceeded to send a RBI single to right. The damage was limited to just one run due to Hempe’s arm in right as on the base hit, he fired a one-hopper to Luciano at third and he laid the tag down on Mark Jones who was attempting to race from first to third.
Chipping away, the Hatters returned in the seventh, greeting right-hander Bryan Brown with a run on a RBI single produced by Brennan. Following a walk to place two on base, Nick Cicio jogged in from the left-field pen, struck out Robert Crews, then witnessed Ben Carhart make it 7-5 on a base hit between first and second. Now with the dangerous Rickles digging in, Cicio kept the lead to two runs on a fly ball to center.
With the Stetson dugout rejuvenated, the Black and Gold was poised for an eighth-inning outburst, yet could not capitalize with Richardson at second and no outs, as well as two runners on with just one out. That came back to bite the Knights in the bottom half when Jones punished a solo homer to center.
Finding itself ahead by just a 7-6 margin in the ninth, UCF felt the pressure to add another run when Hempe touched second thanks to Simpson dropping a fly ball at the wall to get the inning underway. And Hempe would be stranded as Jake Boyd struck out the next three Knights.
After he got the final out of the eighth, Rogers toed the rubber in the bottom of the ninth and the closer struck out pinch-hitter Kyle Zech looking at a 3-2 pitch however issued a free pass to Simpson. Crews promptly singled up the middle before Carhart lined out to center. With two away and Rickles sizing up Rogers, the first baseman sent a sharp grounder to his counterpart and Griffin was in perfect position to handle it for the final out.
UCF wraps up the regular season at home against Marshall with game one scheduled for Thursday at 6:30 p.m. It will be a “Salute to Champions” series as UCF’s C-USA championship coaches George O’Leary (football), Greg Brown (women’s basketball) and Caryl Smith Gilbert (track and field) will be honored in game one, and Amanda Cromwell (women’s soccer) will be the featured coach in game two Friday at 6:30 p.m. The series finale will be Senior Day at the park with first pitch set for noon.