If the NCAA Regional Baseball Tournament were a marathon, it would be safe to say that the Bulls got off to a slow start. Actually, they missed the start of the race by hours.
UCF’s Bo Hall immediately started USF’s plunge by tossing a complete game five-hitter to banish the Bulls into the losers’ bracket.
Saturday was more of the same trouble for the Bulls vs. Stetson as they again fell behind 3-0 after one inning.
“We went down 3-0 in the first game and the second game, and it definitely takes a little something out of you in the beginning of the game,” catcher Devin Ivany said.
The Bulls certainly appeared to be missing something as they were on a collision course with elimination when the Hatters went up 6-0 after four innings.
Then, it all clicked for coach Eddie Cardieri’s Bulls. In the bottom of the fifth, Chris Cuccia laced the first of three doubles against the Hatters to drive in two runs and cut USF’s deficit to 6-3. Myron Leslie followed with a two-run homer to get the Bulls within one.
USF tied the score in the sixth, but a six-run seventh had Stetson poised to once again punch the Bulls’ ticket home.
But from then, the race was no longer an uphill climb for the Bulls but a downhill dash. USF responded to UCF with three in the bottom of the seventh and two more in the eighth. Staring at a 13-11 hole, a Cuccia grounder back to the mound in the bottom of the ninth appeared to be a tailor-made double play to end the game, but it wasn’t to be, and Leslie struck the final nail in the Hatters’ coffin with a sacrifice fly.
Then, behind a sterling performance in the nightcap from pitcher Ryan Gloger, the Bulls avenged their loss to UCF to oust the Golden Knights from the tourney and set up a showdown with Florida State Sunday.
“It says a lot about their character,” Cardieri said of the Bulls’ comeback.
“The bigger the game, the better they play. The more they’re backed up against a wall, the more they come out fighting. The more the challenge, the more they respond to it. We’re certainly going to have a major challenge (Sunday), but to battle back from two different six-run deficits is incredible. That’s unbelievable. I’m really proud of them for that, and I’m proud they’ve battled out of the losers’ bracket and made it to championship day.”
The Bulls were up to the challenge, leading Florida State 3-0 heading into the top of the fifth. But, three games in two days and facing the top team in the nation proved to be more exhausting than any 26-mile run.
Having depleted all nine of his pitchers, Cardieri could only watch as the Seminoles and the heat picked apart Jon Uhl in a seven-run fifth. And this time, there would be no comeback for the Bulls.
“We’ve had our backs against the wall basically all season,” Cardieri said. “It just didn’t work out today, but I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished in just making it to championship day. I guess we’ll just have to settle for that.”
USF didn’t win the marathon, but it put on quite a show just to finish the race.