TAMPA – The University of South Florida Bulls rallied for four runs in the seventh inning to beat the University of Houston Cougars 5-4 and clinch a series win in American Conference action Sunday afternoon at the USF Baseball Stadium. With the loss, the Cougars fall to 28-15 overall and 9-6 in American play, while the Bulls improved to 34-10 and 9-6 in league action.
After a shaky start, surrendering three runs in the first two innings, USF starter Shane McClanahan settled in and gave the Bulls 6 1/3 innings of work. He allowed six hits and four runs, striking out eight. Andrew Perez turned in 1 1/3 innings before giving way to Joe Cavallaro, who earned this second save in as many days and his third on the season.
Down 4-1 in the seventh, USF chipped way at the lead, with a Duke Stunkel, Jr. single and a perfectly-executed bunt by Coco Montes to bring home Andre Leal. Behind 4-3, Luke Borders then delivered a two-run double for a 5-4 lead.
Borders, Leal, and David Villar each had two hits for the Bulls and Stunkel, Jr. registered his second three-hit game of the weekend.
For Houston, Fred Villarreal made the first start in his Cougar career but left the game after two innings with an apparent injury. Aaron Fletcher was solid for four innings, allowing just one run on five hits with one walk and three strikeouts. Joey Pulido took the loss after surrendering three runs on three hits with one walk and two strikeouts.
Connor Wong had two hits for the Cougars and an RBI.
Back in December, I received the USF schedule for 2017 and circled this series as one I could not wait to see. The series did not disappoint. Houston powered their way to a 7- 3 win in the series opener.
South Florida responded with an emotional come-from-behind win 7-4 on Saturday, setting up Sunday’s rubber game in the series.
Both teams came into the series missing key players. Cougars left-hander John King missed the series after an MRI test this week that showed scar tissue in his elbow. Houston center fielder Grayson Padgett was also out with an ankle injury and of course Seth Romero is suspended indefinitely.
USF mid-season All-American Kevin Merrell missed the weekend with a foot injury. Shane McClanahan had left his previous start after four pitches with a lower back issue and Bulls coaches were unsure of his status leading up to the series.
You can argue about whose losses were more significant if you want. I’ll pass.
As Houston head coach Todd Whitting told me Friday in a pre-game chat, “No one cares about how injured you are, you just have to find a way to win.”
As is my custom, I looked at the two teams all week, crunching numbers and checking stats.
Houston has been a front-runner since the inception of the American Conference. Ask me in any of the previous years who I think will win in the American and my default reply is the Cougars.
Whitting seemingly always has a roster full of power arms and enough hitting to make opposing pitchers miserable. His teams are always talented and play hard. This year is no different.
The popular pick in the American this year was East Carolina and for good reason after a Super Regional appearance last year. I stayed with Houston as my pick.
However, I saw this series as even. As it turns out, thats exactly what it was.
Play three more games and the result just night be reversed. That is the way it is in the American Conference this year.
Houston was ranked #23 in other polls coming into the series. USF has had a hard time getting the attention of pollsters this year, largely because of their non-conference strength of schedule. I look for that to change this week, at least it should.
Houston is a quality program and will stay in the hunt this year.
USF is a quality program, and believe me, with the schedule they have left, no one will be talking about the strength of schedule going forward.
After this weekend USF, UCF, UConn, Tulane, and Houston are tied for first in the American Conference with a 9-6 record.
As USF Assistant Coach Mike Current told me this weekend, “Buckle up, this is the way it’s going to be the rest of the way.”