By Steve Parkhurst
Saturday morning got underway in Clearwater, Florida at 9:00 AM local time with the potential to see just two semifinal games to determine who would get to play for the American Athletic Conference championship on Sunday.
There was also the potential that the two games could turn into four games as the undefeated teams in each game got another life in the double-elimination tournament.
Carson Whisenhunt took the hill for East Carolina while Kenny Serwa got the start for Central Florida.
The Pirates took a 1-0 lead in the first on a Zach Agnos sacrifice fly. The Pirates added a run in the third when a wild pitch started runners on first and second moving up, a throw down to second base got into center field allowing the runner from second to score easily for a 2-0 lead.
The Knights scored a run in the top of fourth when a fielder's choice brought home a run from third making the score 2-1.
Ben Vespi took the mound for UCF in the fourth, replacing Serwa. After a scoreless inning, Thomas Francisco (3-for-5) hit a leadoff home run in the fifth to increase the ECU lead 3-1.
ECU went to the bullpen to start the sixth with Cam Colmore. While Colmore dominated over three innings, the Pirates added two runs in the seventh on two hits and a fielding error to take a 5-1 lead.
Matt Bridges pitched the ninth for East Carolina and gave up a run but secured a 5-2 victory, setting up a matchup between the same two teams later on Saturday. Central Florida only collected three hits in the three-run loss.
“It’s an elimination game and we were ready to go,” Francisco said after the game. “We didn’t take BP this morning just so we could get a little extra sleep in.” Looking ahead to their second game of the day Francisco added, “We gotta create our own energy in the next game and keep this thing rolling.”
But first, Tulane and South Florida had to decide a finalist, if they could.
Tyler Hoffman got the start for Tulane; he was matched up against South Florida’s Dylan Burns.
USF took a 2-0 lead in the second on a single to right field by Jarrett Eaton. Carmine Lane hit a two-run home run to left in the fourth inning to push the Bulls lead to 5-1.
Collin Burns hit a grand slam in the fourth which tied the game at five. Chase Engelhard added a two-run home run and Tulane led 7-5 after six innings.
Leading 9-5 in the seventh after doubles by Frankie Niemann and Luis Aviles, Burns picked up three more RBI on an opposite field triple that cleared the bases. Burns finished only a double shy of a cycle as he went 3-for-6.
Donovan Benoit, who took the mound in the fourth inning for the Green Wave, allowed just one run in a 4 1/3 inning relief appearance.
In the eighth, Tulane ended the game via the run-rule when they scored again to win 16-6 and to force another game between these two teams on Saturday evening.
The afternoon rematch between East Carolina and Central Florida featured Jake Kuchmaner and Hunter Patteson, respectively.
Central Florida jumped out to an early 1-0 lead on an Andrew Freeland solo home run.
That lead held as the sunlight gave way and the stadium lights took over. Freeland drove in another run for the Knights with a single in the top of the ninth inning scoring Pablo Ruiz. Freeland was 3-for-4 in Saturday’s rematch with ECU and accounted for three of his team's five hits.
Central Florida led 2-0 in the bottom of the ninth as they went for the shutout. East Carolina, trying to avoid elimination, battled back and plated a run when Alec Makarewicz drove home Lane Hoover on a one-out single up the middle. But Knights closer David Litchfield shut the door and showed the Pirates out of the championship series.
Freeland previewed Central Florida’s place in Sunday’s final game. “We know we can play with anybody. We’re just ready for it.”
In Saturday’s finale, South Florida chased Tulane starter Trent Johnson in the top of the first inning with two outs and the bases loaded and already leading 1-0.
The early move to the bullpen was the right call as Keaton Knueppel came on and struck out the final out of the inning in four pitches to prevent a bigger inning.
After another Tulane pitching change, a two-run home run by Carmine Lane in the second inning pushed the South Florida lead to 3-0.
With the bases loaded in the third and a fourth pitcher in the game for Tulane, the Knights added runs on an infield single and a wild pitch. Tulane went to the bullpen again after a walk loaded the bases with one out. A wild pitch made it 6-0 Knights before a double play ended the inning.
A solo home run by Riley Hogan to lead off the fourth increased the South Florida advantage to 7-0
Brad Lord pitched the Bulls into the seventh without allowing a run. The Green Wave barely threatened Lord as he scattered four hits and struck out eight.
Tulane did finally get a run in the eighth off the Bulls bullpen, but they trailed 7-1 going to the ninth and that was the end of story as the game, and Saturday’s action, concluded just before half past midnight, less than twelve hours before the first pitch on Sunday.
“Today it was just locating the fastball, getting ahead early in the count,” Lord said after the game about his pitching strategy. “[It was about] being able to locate on and off the plate to have success.”
Looking ahead to Sunday, Lord added, “we’re beyond excited, but we all know that we still got one more game to win.”
Central Florida (31-29) will face South Florida (27-27) Sunday at noon Eastern for the AAC title. The War on I-4, as it is known in the area, is likely to draw a nice crowd with the two conference schools closest to Clearwater playing for the title. All fourteen of the potential tournament games were played this week, and both teams are taxed. Central Florida got a few hours head start on some rest, and after this week, that may make a difference.