For 7 2/3 innings, senior RHP Robby Howell had conference and War on I-4 rival, University of South Florida swinging in desperation. One pitch with two outs in the top of the eighth resulted in an opposite field, two run homer to left field, giving USF the time and chances they needed to eventually walk away with a game one, 7-4 win over the University of Central Florida.
In a crucial three-game series between USF (40-13, 14-8 AAC) and University of Central Florida (36-18-13-9 AAC), both teams made early defensive stops to try and get the edge they needed to set up a 2017 regular season title in the American Athletic Conference.
But the Knights got to work on offense first, placing runners on first and second, allowing redshirt sophomore Kyle Marsh to drive a ball into deep right-center field for a two-RBI double. It wouldn’t be until Duke Stunkel smashed the eighth inning ball for his first home run of the entire 2017 season to change the game in USF’s favor.
“Obviously, it’s a tough way to lose a game, we played late in the game. Just didn’t play well enough, didn’t pitch well enough,” head coach Greg Lovelady said. “Robby did a phenomenal job, great start, dominant for most of the game.”
Howell left the game after pitching 7 2/3 innings, striking out six batters, hitting one and allowing only two runs.
An inning later, with the score tied at two, a single to center field would give USF another edge. However, a switch made at the plate to bring senior pinch-hitter Ryan Crile up to bat while trailing 3-2 gave the Knights another chance. A line drive smoked into right field and over the fence tied the game at 3 after nine innings.
“We knew it was going to be a close game, we knew it was going to be a back-and-forth thing and a headway fight and we had to execute every single pitch and we had to take advantages,” Lovelady said.
Heading into extra innings, it became a game of chances and relief pitching, seeing which team would be patient enough to create an opportunity off the other team’s mistakes.
USF would successfully wait it out, forcing sophomore LHP Bryce Tucker to throw consistent strikes, something he found difficult as the game went on. After a scoreless tenth frame, a walk and back-to-back batters being hit by pitches loaded the bases with no outs.
For a moment, Tucker then found hope while facing a bases loaded, no-outs situation. He had recorded two ground ball outs at home off force plays. But a four-pitch walk brought home the go-ahead run and then a bases-clearing, three-RBI double by junior infielder Kevin Merrell silenced the Knights despite some last-minute action in the bottom of the 11th.
“Devastating loss here, but like I said, we are going to turn the page tomorrow and come back and get the [win],” Crile said.
Despite the tough loss, UCF still has a chance at the regular season title since Cincinnati beat Houston Thursday night. With wins on Friday and Saturday, the Knights, could still win their first AAC regular season title in program history.