It’s been a tale of two seasons for coach Terry Rooney and Central Florida.
Nestled in the new American Athletic Conference after spending last season in Conference USA and assembling an unimpressive 29-30 overall record, the Knights looked very much forward to a fresh start this spring, both from a conference and personnel standpoint with the new league and addition of 24 new players.
Those swift changes didn’t create better results early this spring. If anything, the Knights became somewhat of an afterthought after finishing week five and the Central Connecticut State series with a 10-12 record. As this team has gained valuable experience, though, consistency and production has improved.
Now? The Knights have turned the corner and are one of the nation’s hottest teams entering this weekend’s important road series against No. 13 Houston. UCF leads the American Athletic standings with a fabulous 15-3 record, it already has a home series win over Louisville to its credit, has won eight of its last nine contests, and is well on its way, barring a major collapse, to reaching the NCAA postseason, with an outside chance of working its way into host contention.
The early part of the season might’ve been tough for the Knights, but it has helped them prepare for the grueling final few weeks of the regular season, especially with several of their losses earlier this spring coming by just one run.
“Well, you know, we lost a lot of extra-inning, and close games, early on. But this team stayed confident and continued to work hard. I knew we’d have a pretty good team, but with 24 new players, it was going to take some time to learn how to win,” Rooney said. “The one thing I never questioned with this team was their toughness and resiliency. They really kept things together through the lean times and just stuck with it.”
Even with their recent surge on the national stage, it remains intriguing how this team is put together. The Knights haven't gotten consistently good starts from much of its weekend rotation the past couple of weeks, but have been boosted by junior lefthanded pitcher Eric Skoglund and veteran reliever Zach Rodgers.
Skoglund, an intriguing 6-foot-7, 200-pounder, showed flashes of emerging into an elite staff ace and prospect last season, but has taken an enormous step forward this season. Skoglund is sitting 88-92 mph with his fastball and good overall stuff, and he's been consistent almost every time out there in series openers. Meanwhile, go ahead and call Rodgers the glue that kind of binds everything together on the mound.
Though Skoglund is the headliner of this pitching staff, it'd be accurate to call Rodgers the heart. Rodgers, a 5-foot-11, 180-pounder, has started six games this spring, but primarily is used as a key reliever with 20 appearances and a 1.43 ERA in 50 1/3 innings of work. His meaning to this team is unmatched, and he possesses good overall stuff with an 89-93 mph fastball, a legitimate three-pitch mix, and good command.
“I thought Eric would be that guy for us going into the year, but it's one thing to think that, it's another to see it. He's been that guy every time out, and the biggest difference between his first two years and now is his command is better,” Rooney said. “Meanwhile, Rodgers is kind of a hybrid guy for us. We'll use him in a tight relief situation, we'll close him, we'll put him in different roles. The more we have Zach available, the better off we usually are as a team.”
UCF has other quality arms it often relies on, too. For instance, sophomore righthanded pitcher Zac Favre is a key arm with a 2.95 ERA in 20 appearances and 18 1/3 innings of work, while redshirt sophomore righty Ryan Meyer might be the most surprising and intriguing arm on the roster.
Meyer, ranked No. 182 nationally by PG, and with a fastball up to 92 mph, out of high school, was expected to be an immediate impact arm when he arrived in 2012. However, injuries took their toll and he missed both the '12 and '13 seasons. Now, Meyer has emerged as a key arm for Rooney's club with a 1.82 ERA in 34 2/3 innings along with 20 strikeouts and an opposing team batting average of .178.
“Meyer has been our most pleasant surprise this year. He didn't pitch the first two years because of injuries, and he was very projectable out of high school,” he said. “Now, Ryan is a guy with a big frame, and who sits in the upper-80s with his fastball, and has the ability to command a couple of pitches for strikes.”
Offensively, the Knights are just scratching the surface of their potential. Though a team batting average of .272 would lead many to believe this is a weak offensive club, that hasn't been the case the past few weeks. The Knights have several good role players, such as shortstop Tommy Williams, who might only be hitting .242 for the season, but who also leads the team in homers with 10, while Dylan Moore (.328), James Vasquez (.327) and Derrick Salberg (.320) lead the charge.
Overall, the Knights finished all of last season with 24 homers as a team. UCF already has 25 this season.
“I've been pretty pleased with our offense during this recent winning stretch,” Rooney said. “Dylan Moore really has done a great job of leading our offense as a newcomer, while a lot of our returning guys only have gotten better as the season progresses.”
UCF's season looked rather bleak just over a month ago. Now it's enjoying its status as one of the nation's hottest teams. For these guys, it truly hasn't been about how the season starts. It's all about the finish line.
SERIES TO WATCH
No. 2 Louisiana-Lafayette at Arkansas State: The Ragin' Cajuns continue to roll through the Sun Belt, but intriguing Arkansas State is on the docket this weekend. Tommy Raffo's Red Wolves have surprised so far this season with a 14-7 league record, and possess one of the league's better hitters in Matt Burgess, who's hitting .320 with three homers and 46 RBIs.
THE PICK: Louisiana-Lafayette
No. 5 LSU at Texas A&M: Unlike last year's club, which was very flashy, this year's LSU club is fun to watch in the sense they aren't flashy, but always find a way to record the clutch hits or pitches. The Tigers' next step comes this weekend at A&M. The Aggies have been playing much better baseball the past couple of weeks and have a pair of talented freshmen to watch in Nick Banks (.343/2/21) and Ryne Birk (.314/2/13).
THE PICK: LSU
Arizona State at No. 17 Oklahoma State: It's not very often you get a very good non-conference weekend series this late in the year, but that's the case in Stillwater, Okla., this weekend. The Sun Devils are quietly putting together a solid campaign with elite pitcher Brett Lilek leading the way. Lilek has a 1.75 ERA in 61 2/3 innings, along with 57 strikeouts and 27 walks.
THE PICK: Oklahoma State
No. 18 Texas at West Virginia: This series has upset written all over it with the Longhorns scuffling offensively entering the three-game set. West Virginia has a very solid weekend rotation with lefthanded pitchers Harrison Musgrave and John Means leading the way. Musgrave, a very solid prospect, has a 1.95 ERA in 78 1/3 innings, along with 69 strikeouts and 15 walks, while Means has a 2.10 ERA in 51 1/3 innings, along with 35 strikeouts and 10 walks.
THE PICK: West Virginia
No. 4 Florida at No. 14 Alabama: The Gators have been terrific and clutch the past few weeks, and now take their show back on the road to face a Crimson Tide club looking to stay in the mix for an NCAA Regional host site. UF's weekend rotation has been very solid with Logan Shore tallying a 1.76 ERA in 66 1/3 innings, while righthanded pitcher Aaron Rhodes has been a solid addition to the rotation with a 2.08 ERA in 52 innings. Meanwhile, righty Karsten Whitson will start the series finale against the Tide.
THE PICK: Florida
Arkansas at No. 11 Ole Miss: For now, the Razorbacks still are in good shape to reach the NCAA postseason. But stumble down the stretch and that outlook could get bleak. The Hogs dropped a tough series at home to Auburn last weekend. Despite the series loss, righthanded pitcher Chris Oliver continues to shine, while for the Rebels, righthanded pitcher Chris Ellis has met expectations with a 1.81 ERA in 69 2/3 innings, along with 46 strikeouts and 22 walks.
THE PICK: Ole Miss
UCF at No. 13 Houston: The Knights have been one of the nation's more impressive clubs over the past few weeks, and enter the UH series with a fast-improving offense and an outstanding ace pitcher in lefthander Eric Skoglund. Skoglund has a 1.81 ERA in 84 2/3 innings, along with 70 strikeouts and 19 walks. Skoglund has a quality arm with good overall stuff and a fastball sitting 88-92 mph.
THE PICK: Houston
Mississippi State at Auburn: Could this series end up deciding the fate of an at-large NCAA postseason club? I still think Mississippi State is in solid shape right now, while the Tigers desperately need a home series win this weekend to boost their resume. Auburn needs strong performances from Dillon Ortman and Michael O'Neal, who both were fantastic against Arkansas last weekend. Ortman has a 1.92 ERA in 79 2/3 innings of work, along with 50 strikeouts and 10 walks, while O'Neal has a 3.43 ERA in 60 1/3 innings, along with 23 strikeouts. For the Bulldogs, lefthanded pitcher Ross Mitchell is the headliner with a 2.35 ERA in 80 1/3 innings.
THE PICK: Auburn
UC Santa Barbara at UC Irvine: This is a very big series for both squads this weekend. The Gauchos have a good overall record and postseason resume, but need to improve their Big West record. Meanwhile, the Anteaters have quietly assembled a solid overall record, but have a brutal stretch to end the regular season. UC Irvine ace pitcher Andrew Morales has a 0.78 ERA in 81 innings of work, along with 87 strikeouts and 18 walks. He's holding opposing teams to an amazing .165 batting average.
THE PICK: UC Santa Barbara
Cal State Fullerton at Long Beach State: What an intriguing series this is for different reasons than expected. The Titans are on the verge of falling out of the mix for the field of 64, and need a series win over the Dirtbags this weekend. Meanwhile, the Dirtbags have been very solid as of late and have a trio of pitchers shining in Josh Frye, Andrew Rohrbach and Nick Sabo. Frye has a 1.13 ERA in 47 2/3 innings with 31 strikeouts and nine walks, while Rohrbach and Sabo have ERAs of 2.28 and 3.48, respectively.
THE PICK: Long Beach State
• East Carolina plays host to Florida International for a key series this weekend, and will be without righthanded pitcher Jeff Hoffman, who missed last weekend's start because of some soreness. Hoffman's injury isn't deemed serious, but the Pirates will take it easy with him for another weekend. With that said, ECU rose to the occasion last weekend and reliever Ryan Williams has emerged as one of the nation's elite arms this season. Williams has appeared in 26 games this season, tallying a 1.71 ERA in 73 2/3 innings, along with 59 strikeouts, and amazingly, just seven walks. ECU, which we detailed in this week's Bubble Watch, has a chance to take a step forward this weekend.
• TCU has been outstanding the past couple of weeks, and will again need to be solid this weekend without lefthanded pitcher Brandon Finnegan. Finnegan last weekend's start against Cal State Northridge with an injury. However, the Horned Frogs deemed it a case of bursitis. Finnegan will not pitch in his usual Friday role this weekend, but should he feel good on Saturday, the Frogs likely will start him in the series finale at home against Kansas State. Finnegan and the Frogs are aiming for an NCAA Regional host, and Finnegan, who has a big-time fastball 93-95 mph, along with a dominant slider, likely will be a high first-round pick this summer with a 1.50 ERA in 72 innings, along with 96 strikeouts, 18 walks, and a .191 opponent batting average.
• Ohio State has one of the more talented freshman arms in the country in lefthander Zach Farmer. Farmer has been through some obstacles in his baseball career, but is now in a much more important fight against cancer – acute myeloid leukemia to be exact. Farmer and his family were informed of the illness earlier this week, and he'll immediately begin chemotherapy on Monday in Columbus, Ohio. Farmer, one of the nation's top 200 prospects out of high school, had a 3.28 ERA in 49 1/3 innings of work.
• South Carolina has been one of the more banged up clubs this season, and its woes will continue this weekend with a series coming up at Georgia this weekend. The Gamecocks will be without Elliott Caldwell, who will not even make the trip because of a back injury. Meanwhile, Max Schrock (back) and Connor Bright (elbow) will make the trip to Athens, Ga., but are unlikely to play this weekend. Schrock making the trip comes as a surprise, as the scuttlebutt the past couple of weeks was that he might have to miss the rest of the season.
• Liberty has a legitimate shot to earn an NCAA Regional host down the stretch, but will have to do so without righthanded pitcher Carson Herndon. Herndon, who has missed the past few weeks because of an injury, had Tommy John surgery last week and will miss the remainder of the 2014 campaign. Herndon was a high quality arm for the Flames, making eight starts and tallying a 2.82 ERA in 38 1/3 innings, along with 39 strikeouts and 18 walks.
• Keep an eye on the Bryant Bulldogs the rest of the season. Remember these guys? They tallied a good overall record last season, and made a strong statement with a good showing at the Manhattan, Kan., Regional. Well, the Bulldogs are back at it again this season with an impressive overall record of 31-10, along with an 11-1 mark in the Northeast Conference. Furthermore, the Bulldogs have won nine-straight contests with eight regular starting position players hitting over .320. In not so much of a surprise, coach Steve Owens is doing yet another impressive coaching job.
• Kentucky two-way star A.J. Reed is having a sensational season and clearly is the leader for the Perfect Game National Player of the Year award. Reed continued his impressive ways Thursday night against Tennessee by hitting home run No. 20 in a 15-1 win over the Volunteers. Reed also put together an outstanding pitching performance against the Vols. Reed is hitting .374 with 12 doubles, a triple, 19 homers and 59 RBIs. He also has a .810 slugging percentage to go with a .495 on-base percentage.