On Saturday at Schroeder Park, the Houston Cougars bounced back from a series-opening loss to UCF with a 4-3 victory, forcing a Sunday rubber game.
Heading into the bottom of the eighth inning with the game tied 3-3, Zac Taylor, who had come into the game as a pinch-runner in the seventh, doubled into the left field corner, scoring Jacob Campbell with what turned out to be the winning run.
Here are notes and analysis from a wild, back-and-forth game in Houston.
- Offense for the Cougars was an exercise in persistency and tenacity. They pounded out 12 total hits in the game, including nine off of UCF starter Robby Howell, but until the late innings, they struggled to come through with a big hit. Coming off of being mostly shut down by Knights’ pitching (most notably starter Cre Finfrock) on Friday night, even if the runs didn’t come in bunches, the team swung the bats much better as a whole on Saturday and that ended up paying off when they got a couple of huge hits late (more on that in a minute).
- Part of Houston’s struggle to come up with big hits with runners in scoring position was the fantastic defense played by UCF center fielder Luke Hamblin. In the first, with the bases loaded, he made a diving play on a Josh Vidales line drive to end the threat, and in the fifth, he tracked down a Vidales deep fly ball with an over-the-shoulder catch on the dead sprint with two men on. This game would have been a very different game had he not made both of those plays.
- Howell certainly didn’t have his best game (6.1 IP, 9 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 3 K), but he deserves a ton of credit for battling and keeping his team in the game. He got out of bases-loaded jams in the first and fourth innings with no runs scoring, and in every other frame except the sixth, he dealt with men on base. It has to be heartening for UCF to see that, even if he isn’t exactly mowing down the opposition, he can bear down and fight through it.
- Howell’s mound adversary, Seth Romero, was solid once again, throwing seven innings, giving up six hits and three runs (one earned) with one walk and nine strikeouts. The lefty has been nothing short of outstanding on the whole since returning to the rotation.
- Justin Montemayor came through with one of the biggest hits of the night, a two-run single in the bottom of the seventh inning to put Houston up 3-2. He struggled with the bat last season, so it has to be a welcome development that he has been a quality contributor on offense in 2016. After hitting just .176/.278/.219 a year ago, his batting average is up near .300 this season and he has already equaled or eclipsed his 2015 totals in doubles, triples, and home runs.
- Nick Hernandez appears to be settling into the closer’s role nicely for Houston. He wasn’t perfect in his two-inning appearance on Saturday, and he probably could have done without the stress of allowing a leadoff double to Logan Heiser in the ninth inning while protecting a one-run lead, but it was impressive to see him strike out the side while working with that baserunner at second. It wasn’t just the results that were notable; Hernandez also flashed some impressive stuff in this outing. His fastball clocked in as high as 94 MPH, and he featured a breaking ball that he used often as a put-away pitch in the ninth inning as he attempted to close out the game.
Houston Head Coach Todd Whitting
On this game’s potential to be a springboard win for his team:
“I hope so because the game has been really hard on us lately. My guys have played absolutely as hard as they can play the entire season and the game has been cruel…It’s been tough. The will to win can overcome a lot of that stuff, so we’ve just got to keep scrapping and clawing. I thought we played really well tonight.”
On what has made the biggest difference in Justin Montemayor’s offensive game:
“He did a great job of just forgetting about last year. He played tremendous defense for us all year last year, was probably our MVP just the way he played defense. This year, he’s an older guy, he’s played for four years. He knows how to drive guys in and hit right in the middle of our lineup and do some damage.”
On Zac Taylor’s clutch hit after entering the game late:
“That was huge. You talk to your team all the time about being ready late. Everybody that’s on the roster, everybody in the dugout has to be ready to do their part. We had a lot of that going on tonight. (I’m) proud of Zac for getting that big knock.”
On the emergence of Nick Hernandez as the team’s closer:
“He’s been really good on the back end for us. I was concerned coming into the year about who was going to be the back end, and he’s come in and done a really good job, along with (Bubba) Maxwell. Both of those guys have been really good on the back side. That’s a pretty gutsy deal to go in there and give up a leadoff double and get out of that thing (in the ninth). To punch out three in a row, that’s big, that’s hard to do.”
Houston third baseman Justin Montemayor
On the biggest difference in his offensive game in 2016, as compared to last year:
“Just really working with the coaching staff on my approach…making the pitchers get me out and being a tougher out.”
On his team’s emotional win:
“We played with a lot of heart and emotion tonight and we’re just going to keep carrying it on.”