Three Strikes: UCF, Tulane Head into Big Series, Utah’s Pitching, Brad Malm
Central Florida and Tulane Sprint Toward Marquee Series
Central Florida and Tulane, two teams that hope to be in the mix for a spot in regionals when it’s all said and done, have huge opportunities this weekend to secure victories that would propel them decidedly in that direction.
UCF hosts Mississippi and Tulane welcomes Mississippi State, both of which are return series of three-game sets that were played last season, both of which are series that you can bet neither Magnolia State powerhouse is likely to forget.
The Knights went to Swayze Field last season and won a series against then-No. 1 Ole Miss, and while the Green Wave didn’t win the series in Starkville, they won an emotional Friday tilt and held leads going to the bottom of the ninth inning in each of the other two games.
Understanding that it will still be a very tough task, the success UCF had last season in this series, plus a series win on the road against Auburn in 2020 before the season was canceled, shows that it’s more than capable of facing these types of challenges.
“I just think our guys understand that we believe in ourselves and I think we know that we belong in terms of being on the field with those guys,” UCF coach Greg Lovelady said.
But beyond that, UCF should have some confidence going into the weekend because it has played well this season. It’s 7-1 and coming off of a road series win against Georgia Southern, where things went particularly well for the Knights on the mound.
In three games against the Eagles, the Knights gave up five total runs, and fully, their weekend rotation of lefthander David Litchfield, righthander Connor Staine and lefthander Hunter Patteson has given up three runs (one earned) on 12 hits in 33.2 innings so far this season.
“We felt like, coming in, that we had three Friday night guys, guys that would have been Friday night guys for us most every year,” Lovelady said. “So far, we’ve gotten off to that start where they have pitched at that level.
Overall, the team ERA to this point is a minuscule 1.00, and that includes a number of bullpen arms stepping up in a group that Lovelady and his staff were unsure about going into the season due to a raft of injuries suffered in the fall.
Making run prevention even more effective has been team defensive play, as the Knights have made just three errors so far, good for a .988 fielding percentage. That’s an unsustainable number, but it does show the ability of this unit.
“We are pitching and playing really good defense, that’s been the strength of our team so far,” Lovelady said. “We kind of expected our starting pitching to be really good. We had a bunch of injuries in the fall on the mound, guys nicked up here and there. So it was a little bit nerve wracking in terms of the bullpen, but guys are getting healthier and guys that we hadn’t seen that we were really unsure of what we were going to get (have pitched), so kind of excited that the bullpen is starting to shape up.”
The offense has been solid, if not quite as outstanding, with center fielder Gephry Pena (14-for-32, 2 HR), corner infielder Nick Romano (11-for-28, 2 HR), DH Ben McCabe (11-for-28, 2 HR) and catcher Riley Wash (7-for-20) off to good starts, and this unit stands to improve even more once shortstop Alex Freeland (6-for-27) fully gets going, which he showed signs of doing by going 2-for-3 with a home run against Stetson on Tuesday. Freeland hit .288/.402/.429 last season and is the top pro prospect on UCF’s roster.
“You know it’s going to happen (at the plate), it’s just a matter of him relaxing and slowing the game down and trusting all the work that he puts in and trusting the mental game and going out there and being Alex Freeland,” Lovelady said. “I don’t need him to be somebody else. I just need him to be him and enjoy himself.”
Similarly, Tulane should go into its series with MSU with confidence given how close it played the eventual national champions last season and the way in which it has been playing this season. The Wave are 7-1 and coming off of winning a road series against a very good Louisiana Tech team in a hostile environment.
Pitching has been a strength for them as well, with Mississippi State transfer lefthander Dylan Carmouche a revelation in the rotation. Through two starts, he’s given up eight hits and one run with two walks and 11 strikeouts in 13 innings. And the offense has shown an ability to score in bunches, as that unit has scored double-digit runs in four games this season, including 13 in the series finale against Louisiana Tech and 23 runs in a win over Southeastern Louisiana on Tuesday.
The early success of these two teams is not just notable for the fact that they might both have upsets on their mind this weekend, but also because the American Athletic Conference looks unexpectedly wide open right now.
East Carolina, the prohibitive preseason favorite, has stumbled out of the gate to a 3-5 start, including a combined 1-5 in series against Bryant and North Carolina. It’s certainly too early to write off the Pirates as the conference favorite, but it does signal that the door could be open more than we anticipated. However, that hasn’t changed anything about the way Lovelady perceives them.
“I’m not sleeping on them, I don’t care what the record is right now,” he said. “I don’t think anyone in the league is going to sleep on them the rest of the year, just knowing how Cliff (Godwin) is and what their program is and how their players play.”
Of course, what could really change the way we think about the AAC pecking order is teams picking up marquee series wins before conference play begins, and UCF and Tulane have those opportunities right in front of them.
Utah Starting Pitching Stands Out
Utah got incredible starting pitching over the weekend as it won two out of its three games in the Tony Gwynn Legacy tournament in San Diego.
On Friday, fifth-year senior righthander Matthew Sox took a no-hitter into the ninth in a 2-1 win over Fresno State. Because the game was still very much hanging in the balance, he was removed from the game in the ninth after giving up a one-out single (which later came around to score), but he was masterful up to that point, as he walked just two, struck out six and still managed to hold his pitch count to a reasonable 105.
On Saturday, in a 4-0 win over San Diego State, third-year sophomore Randon Hostert struck out eight and gave up three hits and three walks in 6.2 shutout innings, with sophomore righthander Ben Kibbe coming on and throwing 2.1 scoreless innings in relief to complete the shutout, the Utes’ first since late in the 2019 season. SDSU got more hits than Fresno State did the day before, but didn’t do much more, as it didn’t have a hit after the third inning.
From an individual perspective for both starting pitchers, it was a bounce back effort, as neither was all that effective during the opening weekend series against Loyola Marymount. Sox gave up seven hits and four runs in 4.2 innings, while Hostert lasted just 1.2 innings, having given up five runs on three hits and three walks.
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From the team perspective, while it’s just one good weekend of results, it’s also an interesting development that could offer a window into how Utah could be competitive within the Pac-12 this season. Not competitive in the sense that the Utes could challenge to finish near the top of the league, necessarily, but competitive to where they could be in the mix to qualify for the first ever Pac-12 Tournament in May.
If that sounds like a feat too small to celebrate, consider how rare it has been for Utah to perform at that level. If the Pac-12 had played a tournament all this time, the Utes would have competed in it just twice since joining the conference prior to the 2012 season.
There are one-two punches in Pac-12 rotations that have better stuff than Sox and Hostert, and there are one-two punches that are more proven than Sox and Hostert, but with what they showed last weekend, Sox and Hostert proved they can pitch as well as any of them at their best, and in the process, shined a light on a path forward in 2022 for a Utah program simply looking to find the way in which it can be more of a factor in a tough conference.
Brad Malm, Albany’s Answer to Tommy Tanks
Much has been made about the early-season performance of North Carolina State freshman Tommy White, and understandably so.
With nine home runs over eight games, he has more homers than most entire teams in college baseball and he’s likely to push for home run records like the national record for home runs by a true freshman, currently held by former Arizona State slugger Spencer Torkelson, who had 25 in 2018, and the NC State single-season home run record, also 25, held by Turtle Zaun (1988) and current Richmond coach Tracy Woodson (1984).
White has company at the top of the national home run leaderboard, however, in Albany fifth-year senior shortstop Brad Malm, who has launched eight home runs in seven games for the Great Danes.
And if you’re inclined to think that Malm’s home run total is entirely a function of the competition he’s facing, think again. It’s true that he did hit five home runs in four games against Maryland-Eastern Shore, a winless team that returned to play this season after sitting out 2021, but he also hit three home runs in a weekend series against Georgia to begin the season.
For Malm, who is slashing .345/.375/1.207, the 2022 season is already shaping up to be a career year. He only had eight home runs total over four years coming into this season, after all. But he did hit 21 doubles in 2021, so perhaps what we’re seeing now is simply a player with raw power tapping into it a bit more for homers rather than doubles.
The Albany single-season home run record, 13 in 2008 by Mike Konstanty, is well within his reach, and at the rate he’s going, he could get there by the end of the weekend. That’s far-fetched, to be sure, but consider that this weekend he’ll face an Iona pitching staff that has given up 16 home runs in six games so far.
Some parts of Malm’s performance are unsustainable, such as home runs currently making up 80% of his total hits (compared to White having nine home runs and 20 total hits, for example), but he’s on pace to have a special season, likely one that reshapes the Albany record books in a few ways, and perhaps he’ll continue to give White a foil in the national home run race.