May 27, 2008
Before the 2008 UCF baseball season got underway, it was difficult to determine what type of year awaited the Knights. They were coming off consecutive under-.500 campaigns for the first time in program history, but those teams were filled with young, untested players.
Now with skilled veterans, proven newcomers and freshmen who hoped to have a pleasant beginning to their college career, UCF desired to jump out of the gate in exciting fashion.
Adjusting to a new nationwide start date of Feb. 22 set by the NCAA, the Knights were forced to kick off their spring practices on Feb. 1. On average, in the previous 10 seasons opening day was around Feb. 2. As UCF attempted to conform to its new schedule, the players and staff were getting very anxious to welcome Florida A&M to town.
Several factors were entertaining the minds of the Knights in the preseason. Due to a heavily compacted schedule of games, starting pitchers would be in high demand and players had to search harder for free time in order to study for classes. Conference USA was getting more challenging and expectations of the league pushing up to five of the nine teams into the NCAA Tournament floated in the air. And could they get off to a quick run in order to enter the C-USA slate with a ton of momentum.
Then everything came to an abrupt halt. UCF's leading hitter and Golden Spikes Award watch list member Kiko Vazquez was plunked by a pitch in a scrimmage. The first baseman was no stranger to being hit at the plate, as he ranked in the top five in career hit by pitches. However, this one got him in a wrong spot on the arm, and Vazquez was going to be limited to sitting the bench until mid-April.
That set in motion an unfortunate trend during the year. Friday-night starter and senior Jaager Good made just five appearances before suffering a season-ending injury. Freshman infielder Stephen Branca hit the dugout for two weeks after taking a hard slide in game one vs. FAMU. And right fielder Ryan Richardson along with infielder Shane Brown also missed games due to injuries.
Teams should expect the unexpected, though. With each scratch in the lineup, this set of Knights had the depth to make things work. Taking the place of Vazquez, Brown made his way to first base on opening day and evolved into UCF's biggest surprise of the year. He led the Knights to a three-game sweep of the Rattlers where the Black and Gold scored 50 runs in the series to set a school record.
The Knights then faced an odd task immediately following their 3-0 start when No. 5 Missouri made its way to Orlando for a Monday afternoon affair. The third-highest ranked team to visit Jay Bergman Field was on a time limit as the Tigers' travel plans caused the game to be shortened to seven innings. And as the two teams reached the seventh knotted at 5-5, Mizzou plated four runs to take a commanding lead. In the bottom half, UCF somehow struck back and the first seven men reached safely, capped off by Richardson's walk-off double for the 10-9 upset.
A win over a potential contender for the College World Series provided the Knights with plenty of confidence. They eventually stormed out to an 8-0 record, dropped an away game at Jacksonville March 5, then recorded another long winning streak by winning 11 in a row. National rankings followed and UCF jumped to No. 16 in the March 17 Collegiate Baseball Newspaper poll.
That would be as high as they could reach. With a 19-1 record and its best start in program history, UCF's C-USA schedule began at Southern Miss March 21. Good tossed 3.0 innings in the series opener, and those would his last of 2008. While the Knights were able to take game two vs. the Golden Eagles, 15-4, and the first game at home against East Carolina the next weekend, the grueling five-games-a-week schedule took a toll on the team.
Dropping the final two contests to ECU led to a seven-game losing streak. Fans were still hopeful and that stretch featured a home affair vs. USF in which a UCF record 2,397 entered the gates of The Berg.
Rebounding from the streak, the Knights bounced back by taking the series vs. Memphis only to get swept at Marshall, which dropped their C-USA record to 4-11. A 4-2 upset of No. 4 Rice April 25, 12-1 victory at No. 27 Tulane May 4 and two triumphs over UAB May 9-10 did take UCF into the C-USA Championship, where it had a promising outlook of extending its season.
Entering as the No. 7 seed, the Knights faced No. 2 Southern Miss in game one, a team they picked up a win against in Hattiesburg. But similar to many of UCF's final few games, its opponent took a quick lead, the Knights closed in during the middle innings, then watched as the Golden Eagles broke a 5-5 tie in the fifth to advance to the winner's bracket. UCF's campaign then wrapped up two days later in an early-morning 5-2 loss to Tulane.
Along with several memorable team victories in 2008, individual accomplishments were plentiful as well. On March 17, Mitch Houck and Austin Hudson recorded UCF's first combined no-hitter, and second no-no overall, in a 6-0 win. Senior Dwayne Bailey opened the year by being named the C-USA Hitter of the Week, and went on to bat .356 with 21 stolen bases and a .987 fielding percentage. Junior newcomer Colin Arnold capped off his first go-around through Division I with a spot on the All-C-USA Second Team thanks to a .325 average and 17 doubles.
Not to be outdone at the dish, catcher Robert Lara crushed two grand slams to become the first Knight to collect a pair of salamis in the same season since 2005. And Brown virtually came out of nowhere to lead UCF with a .367 average, nine homers, 49 RBI, 103 total bases, .609 slugging percentage, .447 on-base percentage, 1.056 OPS , 14 hit by pitches and seven sacrifice flies.
On the mound, Knight pitchers racked up 537 strikeouts in 512.0 innings, paced by Houck's 71 Ks and Mitch Herold's 70 Ks, both career-highs. The 537 strikeouts were the most by a staff since the 2001 squad amassed a school record 597.
As college baseball continued to prosper in Florida and across the nation, attendance at Jay Bergman Field had exceptional growth in 2008. Fans shattered records left and right, with a total of 40,012 heading to the stadium for an average of 1,052 per game. Meanwhile, eight of the top 25 crowds and five of the top 10 series were all recorded this season.
In the end, crowds were huge, plenty of runs lit up the scoreboard, pitchers delivered strikeout after strikeout and big wins occurred throughout the year. The incessant climb up the C-USA ladder will enter the 2009 season in full force, and even though 2008 just completed, fans should be in for a treat the next time they venture to the ballpark.