TAMPA – The University of South Florida completed a sweep of the University of Central Florida Knights in round one of the American Conference series known as the “War in I-4,” the baseball edition. The Bulls and Knights will play again in Orlando in the last series of the season in May.
Going into the weekend, on paper, the two teams looked evenly matched. Starting pitching looked strong for both teams going in, and both teams featured bullpens that had been lights out up this point.
UCF held an advantage stealing bases, USF had defended better. It all added up to close games, typical any time these two get together, and that is what we got.
Friday night starters Phoenix Sanders for USF and Robby Howell for UCF were not around for a decision. Sanders gave the Bulls six solid innings, allowing two runs on three hits and striking out five. Howell went five innings and allowed three runs on three hits, while walking six and striking out five.
The Bulls took a UCF gut punch, allowing two runs in the ninth to tie the game. The bullpens took over and the Bulls prevailed in the 11th, 5-4.
Game two featured USF lefty Shane McClanahan against Juan Pimentel for the Knights. McClanahan came out in his Saturday start throwing the ball as hard as he has all season, sitting 94-96 in the first inning and reportedly touching 99 on some guns.
When McClanahan pitches, generally you can choose a number of radar guns. However, the start was over after five innings and 90 pitches. He allowed four runs on three hits and walked three. He struck out nine.
Pimentel went four innings for the Knights, allowing just one run on five hits.
Once again, the game became a bullpen game and one UCF could have won. With a 5-4 lead and two outs to get, the Bulls eventually rallied to win 6-5, thanks in part to a throwing error by UCF second baseman Matthew Mika, as he tried to complete a double play, allowing sophomore Cam Montgomery to score the winning run from second base.
On Sunday, the Bulls scored four runs in the bottom half of the fifth added another in the seventh, and Joe Cavallaro finished off a 3 1/3 inning save to secure the sweep 7-5. Again, the bullpen was stellar.
Joe Cavallaro, minus USF Pitching Coach Billy Mohl, had a rough weekend last week in Tulane, but impacted two games this weekend for the good. Talking with Cavallaro in a pre-game chat, the converted starter spoke of hs new role with the team as a reliever. “I like my role, I get a chance to pitch more, impact more games.” said Cavallaro. “Its about winning games” he added.
If I’m looking for standouts this weekend, I look at Cavallaro first. As a reliever, he touches 90-91, but his breaking ball and cutter have been his out pitches. For the series, Cavallaro threw 5.1 shutout innings while striking out ten batters.
Offensively, Luke Borders hit. 429 (6-for-14) for the weekend. Borders scored a team-high five runs and had a double, triple, and home run while driving in two runs for the Bulls. He also had a walk-off single in game one against the Knights.
For UCF, Luke Hamblin is not a player you want to face much. Solid approach at the plate, has some speed. He caught my eye in every at-bat. Speaking of Hamblin, McClanahan left a fastball up to the Knights outfielder in the fourth on Saturday and Hamblin did what all good hitters do and hit a laser over the right-center field fence.
Coaching changes can go either way, winning or transitioning. For UCF Head Coach Greg Lovelady, it’s winning. His team plays hard, and at 24-10, clearly they are not transitioning in 2017. Expect the Knights to be there at the end of the American Conference season.
A few weeks back, I mentioned Joe Genord would eventually be a run producer for the Bulls. He was mired in a season-opening slump at the time. Genord is downright scary for opposing pitchers right now, playing with loads of confidence. You can’t play with confidence until you get results, and he has gotten results. His average is up to .308 with five homers, and coming where he came from early on, its safe to say he has arrived.
Mark Savarese has been a big addition for the USF bullpen. The senior right-hander has given the Bulls another option to hold opposing rallies in check and competes on every pitch.
Therein lies a key for the Bulls’ season. Limiting damage from opposing teams and not allowing many crooked numbers in an inning. Combined with an elite defense, the Bulls will be in most games.
In Bullpen games, advantage Bulls – See what I did there ?
I seldom leave Kevin Merrell out of game notes and I won’t start now. It is fun to watch a player game after game with All-American tools. Merrell hit his fourth home run of the season yesterday in his first at-bat, which reminds me of a conversation I had with him in the fall. He told me then he was working on driving the ball more to the gaps. Coming into this year, Merrell had one career home run, so there’s that.
Finally, USF head coach Mark Kingston has told everyone that can hear him his team takes a “one game at a time” approach to the season. Now, that may be one of the top five cliches in sports, but cliches are born out of results that happen, and repeatedly, so there’s something to them. You hear it in every interview, in the dugout, with all the Bulls coaches and players, on camera or off.
At 27-5, carry on.