CLEARWATER — For USF baseball coach Lelo Prado, Friday night's 2-1 loss to Rutgers, eliminating the Bulls from the Big East tournament, was a microcosm of the final stretch of USF's season.
"The door's open. You've got to take advantage of it. You've got to finish the job," Prado said. "We haven't been able to finish the last two years when the door was wide open. … We've got to get to that point where we go through that door and finish the job. We can't be satisfied with this. I keep saying it. You just can't."
USF (36-22) had a shot in the ninth, getting a leadoff single from Alex Mendez and advancing him to second on a sacrifice bunt by James Ramsay. But Jimmy Falla struck out and Chris Norton grounded out to second to end the game and, barring any surprises, the Bulls' season.
Two weeks ago, the Bulls looked to be in position for the program's first NCAA region appearance since 2002, but were swept in three games at Seton Hall. USF took two of three from the same Rutgers team last week, then beat the Scarlet Knights on Wednesday night, but faded the next two nights.
Thursday, the Bulls led Connecticut 7-0, only to see the Huskies rally for an 8-7 win on a bases-loaded wild pitch in the bottom of the ninth. Friday, the Bulls got strong pitching from starter Joey Lovecchio but couldn't produce at the plate, getting just five hits.
On Friday night, Mendez stopped Rutgers from scoring its first run, gunning down a runner at the plate after a single in the fourth. Charlie O'Grady followed with an RBI double for a 1-0 lead. After being held hitless the first four innings, USF answered with three hits in the fifth, and Blake Sydeski's two-out single scored Buddy Putnam, who had started a two-out rally.
Rutgers was back ahead in the bottom of the fifth, getting an RBI groundout from Vinny Zarrillo after Matt Tietz's single and Nick Favatella's double. Bulls reliever Janick Serralonga pitched 21/3 innings of one-hit scoreless relief to keep USF within a run, and Chad Taylor got the final out in the eighth.
"I'm proud of our seniors. They fought hard all year. This team, when we were 14-14, everybody wrote us off and we made a great run," Prado said.
Rutgers (28-29) plays Connecticut today and needs to win twice to reach Sunday's final. Pittsburgh, which eliminated Seton Hall 7-6, needs to beat Notre Dame twice in the other semifinal, putting the tournament's bottom two seeds in the best position to meet in the championship game.