Defeating Pittsburgh in two of three games this weekend was the ultimate confidence builder for the postseason, said USF coach Lelo Prado.
The fifth-seeded Bulls (25-30, 16-11) open up Big East tournament play with a first-round matchup against fourth-seeded St. John’s (36-18, 16-10) on Wednesday at 8 p.m. at Bright House Field in Clearwater.
“We couldn’t have finished a better way,” Prado said. “That’s what I expected from this club all year long. It was more of a mental lift than anything.”
USF, which struggled most of the year, ended the regular season bouncing back from a loss on a walk-off homer to take the final two games in a road series with the Panthers, the Big East’s third best team.
Junior pitcher Randy Fontanez struggled in the opener Thursday, surrendering five earned runs on 10 hits over 6 2/3 innings. He walked one and struck out six as the Bulls lost in the ninth inning on a two-run homer by Panthers left fielder John Schultz.
There were many welcome signs for the Bulls besides winning, though, as Prado saw junior left-hander Andrew Barbosa, who leads USF in strikeouts and with a team-low ERA, return to the rotation.
Barbosa, who had not pitched since May 7, turned in five scoreless innings, giving up only three hits and striking out two in USF’s 7-3 win in the first game of Friday’s doubleheader.
“It felt great returning to the rotation,” said Barbosa, who also leads USF with seven wins this season. “I was expecting to go only three-four innings.”
Barbosa’s return was big for USF, as he and No. 1 starter Randy Fontanez have provided consistency at the front of the rotation all season.
“Barbosa gave us a big lift,” Prado said.
“It was great seeing (Barbosa) out there,” said shortstop Sam Mende. “It’s his attitude with the guys on the field that makes a difference.”
The team saw solid contributions from back-up players as well. Right fielder Sean Buckley, catcher Andrew Longley and first baseman Jimmy Falla, all had two hits apiece to back Barbosa.
Buckley finished the game with three RBI and two runs scored, while Longley connected for two homers in the final two games of the series.
“That’s huge,” Barbosa said. “They really came through for us. They had it in them, and when their number was called, they stepped up.”
USF had perhaps its most impressive offensive showing in Friday’s nightcap. After the Bulls jumped out to a 6-0 lead through two innings, Pittsburgh answered with three runs in the bottom of the second and six in the third off starter Matt Reed and reliever Kyle Eastham.
Down 9-6, a home run got the Bulls back into the game. Third baseman/catcher Daniel Rockhold, who batted in the DH spot, hit a three-run shot in the seventh to even the score at nine. Rockhold had a career-high seven RBI and two runs scored in a 3-for-4 performance. Pittsburgh added two more runs in the eighth to go up 11-9. Longley then stepped up and blasted a two-run homer to tie the game in the ninth.
In the 10th, Mende launched a three-run shot to put the Bulls up 14-11. It turned out to be the game-winner as USF took the rubber match 14-12.
“It was a great way to end the season, especially with all the injuries we had,” Mende said. “It definitely gives everybody a lot of confidence.”
Mende, who suffered a broken jaw earlier in the season, was 5-for-14 in the series with six RBI, six runs and two home runs.
It was the first time all season that USF won a game in extra innings. The Bulls, primarily a small-ball team, had seven home runs in the series and seem to be playing their best baseball at the most crucial time.
If USF defeats St. John’s, it will play the winner of the game between eight-seeded West Virginia and top-seeded Louisville on Thursday.
“It’s anyone’s game now,” Rockhold said about the upcoming conference tournament. “This is the best time of year to get hot. Our record really doesn’t show what we’re capable of. This series was absolutely huge for us.”
Prado said it was the most impressed he’s been with his team all season.
With Barbosa healthy enough to return to the rotation, the Bulls have arguably the best one-two punch in the tournament, as Fontanez and Barbosa are each in the top seven of the conference in ERA and are among the top three strikeout pitchers in the conference.
“It gives us a good feeling and a good attitude heading into the tournament,” Prado said. “With Randy and Barbosa pitching, I feel really, really good.”