HOUSTON, TX- So much of success in college baseball is winning series.
The thinking goes, particularly in the deeper conferences, that if you simply win two out of every three games on the weekend, when you get to the end of the season, just about everything else will have fallen into place.
That’s the reason you’ll hear many coaches make references to “winning the weekend” or you’ll notice that some teams have taken to calling the final day of each series “Championship Sunday” or something similar. Turning some of those series wins into sweeps is icing on the cake, of course, but most often, winning two of three is the baseline goal.
With that in mind, the UCF Knights are uniquely positioned to achieve that goal each time out, what with two top-notch pitchers fronting their rotation in Cre Finfrock and Robby Howell.
The former burst onto the scene a year ago in his freshman campaign, going 7-5 with a 3.30 ERA and a .224 opponent batting average in 95.1 innings of work, forcing the college baseball community, and most notably the rest of the American Athletic Conference, to sit up and take notice of the righty with the unique name and quality pedigree as a 26th-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers in 2014.
So far in 2016, he’s been even better, and on Friday night, in his team’s 2-1 win over the Houston Cougars, he gave perhaps his best performance in what has already been a season full of quality starts.
Over 8.1 innings, he stymied the Cougars, allowing just four hits (all singles) and one run with one walk and five strikeouts. With this start, he now finds himself 3-2 with a 2.57 ERA, a 57/15 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a .184 opponent batting average in 56 innings.
For UCF head coach Terry Rooney, as solid as he was last season, Finfrock is just an improved pitcher this time around.
“Cre’s been doing a great job for us all year,” Rooney said. “He’s throwing strikes, he’s staying down in the zone. One of the differences, although he had a very good year for us last year, he’s learned to separate pitches and kind of slow the game down. Tonight he made a few pitches in the clutch and did a nice job against a very good Houston team.”
That maturation showed during his 8.1 innings on the hill, as he coaxed a ton of soft contact off of UH bats and just generally kept the host Cougars from squaring the ball up all night.
Finfrock, with this start under his belt, is quickly becoming a tormentor of the Cougars, as this is the second straight season in which he has had his way with the UH lineup. A season ago, in a late-March 9-2 victory over Houston, Finfrock gave up three hits and two runs in seven innings of work.
Of the two co-aces UCF boasts, Finfrock was certainly more of the known quantity. Robby Howell, on the other hand, was more of a wild card and came into 2016 with a little something to prove.
A season ago, Howell made 15 starts for the Knights, but he often struggled, going 5-9 with a 5.69 ERA and a .310 opponent batting average. This season, things have gone 180 degrees in the other direction for him. Howell sits at 6-0 with a minuscule 1.08 ERA and .178 opponent batting average. With Zach Rodgers, statistically speaking UCF’s best starter in 2015, now in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, Rooney and his staff needed someone to step up and Howell has clearly answered that call.
“Robby Howell, going into the season, as a team and as a staff, we said that Robby Howell needs to take a jump,” Rooney said. “I think that was one of the big keys to our team in 2016 and he has done that. He has taken a big jump and he’s pitched very well for us and given us quality starts every time out.”
Indeed he has.
Howell started the year by not allowing a single run in any of his first three starts of the season. It wasn’t until the sixth inning of his start against LIU-Brooklyn, after throwing 24.2 scoreless innings to start the season, that he allowed his first run. In no start this season has he allowed more than three runs, he’s allowed more than five hits in a start just once, and he has not thrown fewer than 5.2 innings in any start, and that was in his opening-weekend start against Siena when he probably could have and would have stuck around longer had it not been a blowout game in the first weekend of the season.
The American Athletic Conference is a deep league once again this season and that likely means a few things. For one, the teams are going to beat up on each other a little bit and it’s highly unlikely that one team runs away and hides with the league crown.
The talent and depth in the league, in fact, is something Rooney is quick to point out.
“Last year, the American Conference was the number three-ranked RPI league in the country, and the more that people in college baseball and throughout the country understand that, the better,” he said. “All you have to do is look at these teams, every team is very good, every team has great players, every team has great coaches. Every baseball program in our conference is committed to college baseball at the highest level. It’s an unbelievable baseball conference and I think every weekend, you’re never know what you’re going to get because from top to bottom, they’re all quality teams.”
That also means that it’s anyone’s league to win, and with Finfrock and Howell leading their rotation, UCF is poised to have a whole lot to say about who ends up on top when it’s all said and done.