The series could have gone either way for the USF baseball team.
Though the Bulls (23-19, 9-5 C-USA) avoided the three-game sweep against UCF (35-9, 14-4 A-Sun), there was a far-off, albeit distinct, possibility that the series could have been the Golden Knights’.
UCF took the first two games with 8-7 and 10-7 wins on Apr. 5 and Apr. 12, respectively, but USF’s offense — despite various injuries to numerous starters — powered the team to a 9-2 victory Tuesday at Red McEwen Field.
“This was a great win because (UCF) is a ranked team,” said Cardieri, who is only two wins shy of 700 for his career. “My God, this team is going to win 50 games this season. They have something like 23 games left. We’re so banged up right now, and guys came off the bench and did very well for us.”
USF, who evened up the all-time series with UCF to 47-47 with the win, scored first in the game in the second when red-shirt freshman Joey Angelberger — filling in at second for Nick Cardieri, who was out with his nagging hamstring injury — looped a hit out of second baseman Matt Ray’s reach, scoring third baseman Jeff Baisley from second.
The very next inning, USF added five unearned runs to its lead off of junior Ray Rodriquez, who came into the game with a 6-0 record and a 2.36 ERA.
Freshman Brandin Daniel hit his second home run of the year to straightaway center field, and Rodriquez loaded up the bases for Angelberger as he hit his first career home run and grand slam to take a 7-0 lead.
The Bulls’ batters have hit three grand slams in seven days, the first two coming on April 12 against UCF by senior right fielder Bryan Hierlmeier and in Sunday’s 11-2 win against UAB by Jeff Baisley, respectively.
“It felt good to be out there and hit,” said Angelberger, who made his first start at second as well as his sixth start this season and had five RBI on the night. “I knew I just had to get out there to replace Nick and also play second all night. (The grand slam) felt great.”
Added Cardieri, “Joey Angelberger did great coming off the bench like he did. We’re going to evaluate his role, because he’s the third guy at second base, but we just have to see how the ball club’s health is.”
Freshman starter Blake Tillett (3-1) pitched for 5 1/3 innings, giving up six hits and two runs with two strikeouts, and Cardieri stuck out the game with freshmen southpaws all night, as James Rowe relieved Tillett in the fifth and Davis Bilardello closed out the game, pitching three innings and striking out two.
“Three freshmen left handers went out there and did very well,” Cardieri said. “Blake’s performance tonight was outstanding. Forty-eight pitches after four (innings). He didn’t have to work very hard. He was very good at throwing two-out-of-three pitches for strikes.”
Tillett, though, was a little more humble than his seasoned coach about his pitching performance.
“(It was) pretty good,” Tillett said. “Pretty decent start. Just trying to throw strikes and stay ahead of the batter. Last time I faced (UCF), I hit a couple of batters, had a few more walks. Tonight, they just kind of got themselves out.”
Timely defense helped Tillett out — though there was a rare error by Jeff Baisley — with glove work by both Hierlmeier, who racked up four putouts in the outfield, and freshman Dexter Butler, who managed three putouts at shortstop.
“That was a good game of baseball we played,” Cardieri said. “I hope we can keep it up through Houston, because I keep saying it: The conference is the vehicle to the NCAA tournament. We’ve played the first half (of the season), now we have the second half with a lot of really tough opponents.”