June 3, 2011
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By John Denton
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Down all day in the NCAA Regional opener against Alabama, UCF showed the fighting spirit that has been a hallmark of the season by getting the tying run to the plate in the ninth inning. But when D.J. Hicks and Jonathan Griffin - who have a combined 31 home runs and 115 RBI - were left in the on-deck circle, it left the Knights with an empty feeling filled with what could have been.
Trailing 5-1, second-seeded UCF got single runs in the seventh and ninth innings, but saw its hopes of a win vanish when Beau Taylor's line drive to right field was caught, sealing a 5-3 loss to third-seeded Alabama. The finish meant that Hicks (13 home runs, 62 RBI) and Griffin (18 home runs, 53 RBI) never got to the plate again, bringing a disappointing end to UCF's first NCAA Regional game in seven years.
``I can speak for both myself and D.J. and say that we wanted that game more than anything,'' said Griffin, who had a double in the eighth inning. ``Right now, we just have to flush this game and worry about (Saturday).''
UCF (38-22) will have to rally out of the loser's bracket on Saturday to keep its season alive. The Knights, who entered the tournament having won nine of the last 11 games, will play either Florida State or Bethune-Cookman Saturday at noon at Tallahassee's Dick Howser Stadium.
UCF manager Terry Rooney said the way his team kept clawing and stayed in the game on Friday is a sign that this squad still has plenty of fight left. UCF pitchers Brian Adkins and Johnny Sedlock were able to hold Alabama to single runs in five different innings, but the Knights could never get going offensively at the right times to put a scare into the Crimson Tide (34-26).
``I told them regardless of what happens in the first eight innings you want to put yourself in position in the ninth to win the game,'' Rooney said. ``We had the tying run at the plate with D.J. and Griff right behind them. That only happens when you fight all the way to the end and have guys like we do with confidence. We have 27 guys who believe and are playing their hearts out.''
UCF routed Alabama 12-4 back in late February, pounding out 18 hits and 12 extra-base knocks. But Friday's game was totally different against Alabama ace Nathan Kilcrease, who struck out 10 and allowed just four hits over seven innings.
UCF didn't get a leadoff batter on base the entire game and it had consecutive hits just twice in the game. Sophomore Ronnie Richardson, who homered in the seventh inning, struck out looking with the bases loaded in the fourth inning. Richardson drove in Darnell Sweeney in the ninth to get UCF within 5-3, but it's the fourth inning at-bat that frustrated him throughout the afternoon.
It was a fastball (on the home run in the seventh), but I wish I would have gotten the at-bat before,'' said Richardson, who was two of five with two RBI. ``That (home run) means absolutely nothing now. I wish I would have gotten that pitch in the at-bat before.''
UCF's big bats were held mostly in check by Kilcrease (8-4), who won two games in the NCAA Regional for Alabama last spring. The heart of UCF's order - Taylor, Hicks, Griffin and Derek Luciano - were a combined one for 15 with Griffin's double being the only hit. Taylor, who entered with a 15-game hitting streak, was hitless after his liner to end the game was snagged.
``(Kilcrease) did a really good job. He kept the ball down and got ahead,'' Griffin said. ``We were chasing his pitches. He's an outstanding pitcher and he showed it today.''
Added Richardson: ``He mixed up his pitches really well. Fastball counts he was throwing off speed. He was pitching backward most of the afternoon, keeping our guys off balance.''
Despite the outcome, the game was a landmark moment for a Knights' program clearly on the rise. UCF, which defeated eight nationally ranked teams this season, is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004, and no player on the squad had ever played in a NCAA Tournament game. Griffin and Richardson said nerves were not an issue on Friday, especially with UCF defeating Alabama, Florida State and Bethune-Cookman during the regular season.
Said Griffin: ``Since we got up here, it's sunk in for us. It's great to be here, but we came to win. That's what we'll be striving to do (on Saturday).''
Rooney had hoped his Knights could build some confidence by getting on the scoreboard early in the game, but they had a runner cut down at the plate to end the second inning. Travis Shreve was running when Sweeney doubled to the left-center gap, and tried to score when the throw came into third base. But Alabama executed perfectly and Shreve was thrown out at the plate.
``No question that was absolutely the right call there. We wanted to put ourselves in a position to get on the board,'' Rooney said. ``In that scenario what we were trying to do is force the issue. There were two outs, the guy was in motion and we had to go for it. It took perfect throws on both ends and they did. It was the right call and we'd do it 10 out of 10 times.''
Added Alabama manager Mitch Gaspard: ``They were being aggressive. The throw came into third and (Brett) Booth made a nice transfer and threw a strike to the plate. That really kept the momentum on our side. As it turns out, that was a very big play for us.''
UCF starter Brian Adkins gave up four runs over six innings, and senior reliever Johnny Sedlock kept the Knights within striking distance over the final three innings. He only allowed a seventh inning home run to Austen Smith over the 315-foot right field fence.
Rooney said he has the utmost confidence that his Knights will rally around Saturday starter Danny Winkler (3-4, 5.05 ERA) and get their bats going to keep the season alive. If UCF wins on Saturday, it could be in a position to play twice on Sunday and possibly get a rematch against Alabama.
``Our backs are against the wall, but we're going to live in the future,'' Rooney said. ``There is no need to worry about (Friday). Right now, we're going to move forward. We've shown it all year that we have enough fight and we have enough pitching depth to get through. We want to try to get ahead early, score first and get a little momentum.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at email@example.com.