WP: Cicio (3-2), 3.0 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K LP: Napoleon (5-3), 7.2 IP, 8 H, 6 R, 4 ER, 0 BB, 5 K SV: Rogers (9), 1.0 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K
The first moment was Darnell Sweeney's run-saving dive at shortstop to keep the game at 2-2 in the fifth. But the most important swing of the game was Jonathan Griffin's two-out, three-run home run in the eighth inning to put UCF ahead 6-4.
PEARL, Miss. (UCFAthletics.com) - In his first at-bat of 2011, senior first baseman Jonathan Griffin homered in the second pitch he saw on Opening Day vs. Siena. That four-bagger set the stage for a monster season, and Griffin demonstrated that power again Thursday with a two-out, three-run home run in the eighth inning to give No. 4 seed UCF a 6-4 victory over No. 8 UAB in the Conference USA Championship presented by Trustmark in Pearl, Miss.
Griffin's dinger erased a 4-3 deficit for the Knights (38-20), who are now 2-0 in pool play and can advance to the title game Saturday with a Rice loss to Memphis Thursday or a victory over Rice Friday at 1:30 p.m. ET. UCF and UAB (29-27) entered the day with 1-0 records in pool play while No. 5 Memphis and No. 1 Rice were 0-1.
"Jonathan Griffin has been one of the best hitters in the country, especially in the second half of the season," said head coach Terry Rooney. "In my opinion you've got to have guys that can drive the ball out of the yard even with the new bats. And we have been able to get back into games because of that."
Crushing a home run in three-straight games, Griffin went 2-for-4 Thursday and is now 10-for-17 with four long balls and 10 RBI in his last four outings. The Bradenton native pushed his season homer total to 18, which moved him into a tie for second with Dee Brown on the UCF single-season list (record is 21 set by Chris Duffy in 2010). Griffin also has 31 dingers in just two years as a Knight, which ranks seventh all-time.
While Griffin was casually doing his thing with the stick, a trio of pitchers combined to allow their team the ability to get the victory. Starter Danny Winkler struck out seven in 5.0 innings of work, as it was his seventh-straight outing of at least 5.0 innings. Senior lefty Nick Cicio got the win (3-2) with 3.0 innings of one-hit ball, and sophomore southpaw Joe Rogers grabbed his ninth save of 2011 with a scoreless ninth. Cicio and Rogers pitched the final 4.0 innings, not giving up a run or a walk and striking out four.
Winkler and UAB's Dillon Napoleon, both junior righties, breezed through their respective first innings with Winkler picking up a pair of strikeouts. He did find trouble in the second when the Blazers earned a bunt single and a walk to put the first two aboard. Three batters later and Winkler had three more strikeouts.
In the third, the Knights found themselves in the same situation that UAB was in the previous frame, placing the first two on base thanks to an error and a base hit by Darnell Sweeney. Travis Shreve and Sweeney were moved over on a perfectly-executed sacrifice bunt laid by Ronnie Richardson, and Beau Taylor did his job with a sacrifice fly to right. It would not just be 1-0, though, as the Blazers fumbled the relay throw and Sweeney hustled around from second to make it 2-0.
UAB threatened again in its return trip to the dish in the third and this time capitalized with a run, yet Winkler was able to strand two runners to get into the fourth inning ahead 2-1.
Eventually in the fifth, the righty had no one on base with two outs and two strikes only to witness the Blazers still manage to push a run across on a RBI double from John Frost. With the runner still at second and the game knotted at 2-2, Ryan Ussery grounded a sharp single up the middle. Sweeney quickly moved to his left to make a diving snag, keeping it on the infield. Frost thought there was no chance Sweeney was going to get a glove on it so he rounded third and headed home. Sweeney got to his feet, threw a strike to Taylor and the catcher easily tagged Frost out to keep UAB from grabbing the lead.
"Our defense has been outstanding for the entire season," said Rooney. "Darnell did a great job there, and those are things that you don't see in the box score. That was a momentum changer."
With Winkler's pitch count climbing, the Blazers got to him again in the sixth with two groundball singles to start the inning. That forced the Knights to go to the pen for Cicio, and after a sac bunt, UAB plated both runners on a RBI base hit by Keith DePew and a delayed squeeze bunt from Nick Crawford.
Trailing for the first time in the tournament, UCF cut the deficit in half in the seventh. Derek Luciano led off with a double that center fielder Jamal Austin misplayed, touched third on a fly out and raced home on a RBI groundout by Ryan Breen.
Now with just six outs to work with, the Knights were desperate for a run. And with one swing of the bat they not only got one run, they got three of them in the eighth.
The Knights had five-straight hits in the crucial eighth inning, with Taylor and D.J. Hicks getting aboard with two outs for Griffin. In what would be the 118th as well as his last pitch of the day, Napoleon witnessed Griffin's destruction of his fastball as he sent it to the berm in left-center.
Demoralized, UAB could not recover against Cicio and Rogers, and the Knights had their 6-4 victory in their backpocket.
No. 4 UCF - 38-20 Overall
No. 8 UAB - 29-27 Overall
-UCF is now 6-1 this year when it appears on television (Thursday's game aired on CSS/Bright House Sports Network).
-The game started 21 minutes late due to a rain delay before first pitch.
-Danny Winkler has 16 strikeouts in his last two outings (10.0 innings).
-Beau Taylor extended his hitting streak to 14 games.
-The Knights did not commit an error for the fourth-straight game, and have just one error in the last 13 games.
-Darnell Sweeney and Derek Luciano each had two hits, with Luciano's hits being doubles.
-It is the first time since the Atlantic Sun Tournament in 2005 that UCF won two-straight postseason contests.
-Joe Rogers' ninth save moved him into a tie for second on the single-season list with Justin Weiss. The record is 12 by Jason Arnold in 1998. Rogers also has 17 saves in just two years as a Knight (ranks fourth on the career chart).