USF tops UCF for AAC baseball tourney crown, earns NCAA berth

·3 min read

Completing one of the most surreal weeks in program history, USF’s baseball team did its part Sunday in helping settle the collective score against rival UCF.

Despite an unsettling finish.

The sixth-seeded Bulls (28-27) completed their improbable run through the American Athletic Conference tournament with a tense 8-7 victory against the No. 5 Knights in the title game at BayCare Ballpark in Clearwater. In addition to claiming its first conference tournament crown since 1995 (when it won the Metro), USF also earned an automatic NCAA Tournament berth.

Redshirt freshman right-hander Orion Kerkering, who tossed the last three innings in Saturday night’s 7-1 semifinal win against No. 2-seeded Tulane, pitched two more scoreless innings Sunday to earn his second save in a 15-hour span.

“This ranks second besides the year I lost my wife and we won the (Missouri Valley Conference) title,” said Bulls coach Billy Mohl, whose first wife, Sarah, died of cervical cancer in 2013 while he was an Illinois State assistant.

“This is No. 2. The fact we were picked to finish dead last in this conference, and the fight that our guys showed to show that we could win a championship, I’m super proud of these guys.”

Taking the field roughly 12 hours after their triumph against Tulane, the Bulls built a sizeable lead before you could say “War on I-4.” Cleanup hitter Daniel Cantu’s two-run home run to left field gave USF a 2-0 lead in the top of the first, and the Bulls added four more in the second on four hits, a wild pitch and one glaring mental error.

With one out and runners at the corners, Bulls center fielder Roberto Pena hit a potential double-play ground ball to short. Knights second baseman John Montes took the short throw and stepped on the bag for the second out, then began trotting toward UCF’s dugout, unaware there were only two outs.

Nick Gonzalez scored on the play, and catcher Jake Sullivan added an RBI-single two batters later to push USF’s lead to 6-0.

But the Knights chipped away at the deficit behind freshman Alex Freeland, who had an RBI-double in UCF’s two-run fifth, then drove in two more with another double during a four-run sixth that cut UCF’s deficit to 8-7.

“We were obviously thin on the mound,” said Mohl, whose team learns its NCAA tourney destination during Monday’s noon selection show on ESPN2. “Guys had been used multiple times, so we were just trying to collect outs at that point.”

The Bulls failed to get a base runner against Knights reliever Zack Bennett over the last three innings, but Kerkering was nearly as effective, allowing only one hit while striking out two and walking two over the final two innings to hold off UCF (31-30).

“To ask him as a power pitcher to do what he did for us, getting done at 12:30 last night, turning around and giving us another two innings out of the pen today, hat’s off to him,” Mohl said. “That was a heroic effort on his end.”

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