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Bulls find bright spot at end of tough season

There weren’t many positives this season for USF’s baseball team, though some could be found in the last game of the season despite a dramatic loss.

The Bulls were bounced from the Big East tournament by top-seeded Louisville 9-7 on a walk-off homer Friday night after coming back from a six-run deficit.

“That’s probably the best baseball we’ve played and been a part of all year,” shortstop Sam Mende said.

A year after finishing second in the Big East, USF (26-32) failed to reach the NCAA tournament for the eighth consecutive season. The tough loss against the Cardinals, however, illustrated that it wasn’t for lack of effort.

Down 7-1 in the fifth inning in a win-or-go-home game, the Bulls cut the deficit to 7-6 in the eighth after a two-run homer by Mende.

“We didn’t care who was pitching, who was hitting and who was getting the ball hit to them,” said Mende, who was hitless in the first two games of the tournament but went 4-for-6 in the final outing. “We had confidence. It didn’t matter who was on the mound or in the other dugout.”

With the Bulls trailing by a run in the ninth, sophomore second baseman Luis Llerena hit a two-out, two-strike solo homer off dominant Cardinals’ reliever Neil Holland, who came into the game with seven wins and 16 saves on the season, to tie the game and send it into extra innings.

“The last thing on my mind was to hit a home run,” Llerena said. “I was just trying to find a pitch to hit. He gave me a couple curve balls in the dirt, so I hung back and got a fastball and just tried to put a line-drive swing on it. Then it got out of the park.”

Llerena’s home run was his first since his junior year of high school.

“It was one of the brighter spots we had all year,” Prado said.

The Cardinals, however, spoiled USF’s comeback by winning the game in the 11th inning with a two-run homer by Louisville’s Stewart Ijames.

“It was tough in the beginning of the year when things didn’t seem to go our way,” Llerena said. “We’ve come together as of late. It’s too bad it had to end.”

USF avoided elimination the previous night behind  junior Andrew Barbosa, who went seven innings, striking out eight, walking two and allowing three earned runs. The offense ran over West Virginia, producing 10 runs on 12 hits, and USF won 10-5.

It was a disappointing season for USF, as the team appeared to be turning things around a little too late.

“You have to come to play every day and you got to have chemistry,” Prado said. “Chemistry’s the toughest thing to put together as a coach. You can’t teach that. You talk about it every day, but it’s got to come out of the 32 players on the team.”

During the six-run comeback Thursday, USF gave fans a glimpse of what could come next season.

“I thought we really had something there that could change our season,” Mende said.

“Our attitude was great and everyone trusted one another. We can take that into next year. It shows we can do it, but we have to actually do it.”