The events of Friday’s eighth inning of the NCAA Regional were so dynamic and so clutch that even some three hours later UCF head coach Terry Rooney was still shaking his head in amazement.
Closer Joe Rogers started the inning out by pitching out of a bases loaded, no-out jam, and Ronnie Richardson and Chris Taladay followed with clutch hits that allowed UCF to escape with a 2-1 defeat of Missouri State in Game 1 play of the NCAA Regional.
UCF (44-15) had to wait out a 2-hour, 40-minute rain delay to finish out the ninth inning and the 15th NCAA Tournament victory in school history. But throughout the delay and afterward, the Knights couldn’t stop thinking about the dramatics of the eighth inning.
“Huge moment is an understatement,” Rooney said. “During the delay we were talking amongst ourselves with the coaches and I said that inning had the potential to go down as one of the greatest innings in the history of UCF baseball. When you think about a 1-1 game in the NCAA Regional, bases loaded and nobody out, and for Joe Rogers to work out of that, it was incredible.
“And then to come back and get the go-ahead run in the bottom half of the eighth, that had everything you would want in a college baseball game,” Rooney added.
The standouts were aplenty on Friday for second-seeded UCF. Lefty Chris Matulis pitched the ninth inning for the first save of his college career, while starter Ben Lively shut out third-seeded Missouri State (39-21) over 5 2/3 innings. Richardson, UCF’s do-everything leadoff hitter, opened the bottom of the first with a home run and started the go-ahead rally in the eighth. Chris Taladay singled in Richardson to give the Knights a lead that they would not surrender.
“Ronnie is a quick guy, so I knew anything that I saw up (in the strike zone) I was going after it,” Taladay said. “ It was a changeup early in the count and I was just trying to make some early action.”
In a NCAA Regional for a second straight year, UCF will face Stony Brook, a 10-2 winner over host Miami on Friday night, at 7 p.m. Saturday. Friday’s win allowed UCF to stay out of the loser’s bracket like last season. The experience of the 2011 Tallahassee region was a huge factor on Friday, Taladay said.
“That experience helps a lot, especially how we ended it last year,” said Taladay, referring to UCF’s two losses to Alabama last spring. “We don’t want that again. We’re not looking to lose again. We’re coming out fighting this year.”
UCF’s victory was significant considering the quality of competition on the mound on Friday. Missouri State starter Nick Petree was named the Louisville Slugger National Player of the Year on Thursday after leading the nation in ERA this season at 0.92. But the Knights got two hits from Richardson and the go-ahead looper from Taladay to push across the two runs against Petree.
“Ronnie Richardson is one of the best players in the country and is one of the most clutch players in college baseball,” Rooney said. “He rose up and it goes back to the adage that your best players rise up in the biggest situation. He did that by getting the hit there late.”
UCF played well defensively all day with several gems, but its biggest play of the day might have been a dropped popup in foul territory. With the bases loaded in eighth inning, Missouri State’s Eric Cheray lofted a fly ball down the line in left. Ryan Breen, who was making just his seventh start of the season in left field, couldn’t handle the popup in foul territory. It’s probably a good thing since Breen would have had a difficult time throwing out a tagging Luke Voit. Cheray ultimately popped up and UCF got out of the jam when Travis Shreve gloved a grounder and flipped to second base.
Rogers allowed two singles and a walk to load the bases early in the eighth, but he kept his calm as he registered the next three outs to get out of the jam.
“That eighth inning was crazy. It was probably the biggest inning I’ve ever pitched in my life,” said Rogers (5-1), who was credited with the win. “I got down with no outs, but I just told myself that I’ve got to go do it. It was a situation where I had to clear my head and go pitch-to-pitch.”
Missouri State, which had 12 runners left on base during the game, tied the game at 1-all in the seventh inning by stringing together a double and a single. Pinch-hitter Dillon Becker’s fly ball to left field carried in the wind blowing out and hit off the wall for a double. UCF kept the game tied later in the inning when Alex Friedrich’s throw from right field nabbed Kevin Medrano off third base.
UCF sophomore starter Ben Lively, who pitched well last week in the Conference USA tournament to regain his momentum after a poor outing late in the regular season against Rice, was clutch throughout Friday’s first six innings. In 5 2/3 innings, he struck out six batters, but more importantly he stranded seven Missouri State base runners.
Lively jammed hitters early in counts with fastballs and used a good slider to get strikeouts. He allowed just three hits and pitched around four walks. Of his 113 pitches, 62 went for strikes. Richardson’s leadoff home run calmed his nerves and he hung tough as he out of several jams.
“(Richardson’s home run) pumped me up right away and with the way the game was going I knew it was going to be a close game,” Lively said. “I thought that might have won the game right there. It helped me get locked in the whole game.”
UCF got stellar defensive plays early in the game from Friedrich, D.J. Hicks and Breen to maintain the 1-0 lead. Hicks scooped up a low throw in the second inning to keep a runner at second base, while Friedrich made a diving catch near the right field line in the third with two runners on base.
And in the fourth inning, Breen caught a fly ball before crashing into the wall. Usually a catcher, Breen was making just his seventh start in left field because of a sore wrist. And in the fifth, a hard ground ball deflected off Hicks’ glove, but Travis Shreve scooped it up to make the play.
Lively pitched out of trouble in each of the first three runs to keep the Knights ahead, 1-0. With the bases loaded in the top of the first, Lively induced a check swing on a ball in the dirt and when the runner broke from third he was easily tagged out. He ended the second inning with two strikeouts after a Missouri State runner had reached second base.
With two on in the third, Friedrich dove to catch a looper near the right field line, preventing one if not two runs from scoring.
Carrillo and Sweeney made outstanding plays in the sixth inning to stem another Missouri State rally. Carrillo snagged a hard hit ball early in the inning to start a double play. Then, after Madrid relieved Lively, Sweeney went deep into the hole and forced a runner at third to end the inning. For Sweeney, a Miramar native, the game was somewhat of a homecoming.
UCF couldn’t build on its 1-0 lead when it missed great scoring chances in the third and fourth innings. After the first two hitters of the third reached, Petree retired the next three Knights. And with two runners on in the fourth, UCF couldn’t convert a sacrifice and ran themselves out of the inning.
And in the bottom of the eighth inning, UCF used Rogers’ working out of a jam to build some momentum to push across the winning run. Rooney said his Knights are playing with a purpose and Friday’s victory shows the resiliency of the squad.
“The one thing I’m the most proud of all year with these kids is their consistency. Every single day they have shown up and anytime we’ve had to bounce back they’ve done it,” Rooney said. “I do not worry one bit about the mental state of our team. They are kids who are confident and proven and they are here, quite honestly, on a mission trying to do something great.”