TAMPA — It was late in a disappointing USF season opener, the Bulls were trailing Louisville 10-0 and nobody was hitting the ball, so Lelo Prado looked to the end of his bench and gave Nik Alfonso his first college at-bat as a pinch-hitter.
Alfonso, a redshirt freshman walk-on infielder from Tampa Catholic, came through with an RBI single in what ended up a 10-1 loss. The next day, batting ninth, he went 3-for-5 with four RBIs in a Bulls win. Three months later, he has started 49 of 55 games, and as the Bulls open play in the Big East tournament in Clearwater, he's .001 off the team lead with a .413 on-base percentage, a consistent presence out of the No. 9 hole.
"I said, 'If we're not going to hit, I might as well go with a guy that hits,' and he hasn't stopped hitting," Prado said. "He's done an unbelievable job. He's had some big hits for us, and he's an ideal guy who just goes about his business. He's a baseball player."
Alfonso, 20, has USF baseball in his blood — his father, Tony, played for the Bulls in 1984-85, leading the team in hits, runs and stolen bases in 1984.
Coming out of high school, Alfonso had limited options from NAIA programs, so he accepted Prado's offer to walk on with the Bulls. After a year off, he saw an opportunity and ran with it.
"I just realized that if I got my shot, I'd go hard and do what I could to help the team," said Alfonso, a 5-foot-9, 180-pounder who hit .380 as a senior at Tampa Catholic. "I think the coaches think about how hard I work, and how mentally I'm ready to play the game. That played a big role in being able to stay in the lineup. The coaches had confidence in me, and that put me at ease to just go out and play."
Alfonso doesn't have a power swing — 50 of his 55 hits are singles, the other five doubles — but he has done the little things well. He is one of only three regulars with more walks (24) than strikeouts (19), and he's second on the team with eight sacrifice bunts.
Prado has had a strong supporting cast emerge from unlikely places as USF challenges for its first NCAA region appearance in 11 years. The Bulls (35-20, 17-7) likely need a strong showing this week in Clearwater to solidify their position for an at-large berth.
"If we win the tournament, we're in. That's No. 1," Prado said. "We've got to win some games, and if we win some games, we put ourselves in a great spot. Do we have to win two? Three? Four? I don't know. We don't have to worry what happens on Monday. Take care of business (today) through Sunday and everything will fall into place."
Alfonso isn't the only unlikely success story; three converted outfielders are in the bullpen. Another outfielder, senior Anthony Diaz, had 10 hits in his college career entering the season; another everyday starter, Chris Norton, has 55 hits and leads the team in home runs after going 1-for-20 last year. The team's RBI leader, Jimmy Falla, drove in more runs this season than in his first three combined.
"When you talk about total team effort and everybody doing their part, I knew that would have to happen for us to be good," Prado said. "Every day, we've got a different guy. If I feel good about a guy that day, I'm going to play that guy."
Alfonso is already academically a junior, on pace to graduate in December 2014 with a degree in finance and a minor in economics. He'd like to become a financial analyst, but right now, he's enjoying being part of a team that was 14-14 halfway through the year and is 21-6 since.
"The journey we've taken to get to this point, and all those wins, seeing us grow together as a team, really meshing well, you can see the team chemistry has really grown," he said. "Each time we get another of those wins, it continues to get better and better."
. FAST FACTS
Big East baseball tournament
When/where: Today-Sunday, Bright House Field, Clearwater
Today: No. 3 Pittsburgh vs. No. 6 St. John's, 10 a.m.; No. 2 Seton Hall vs. No. 7 Notre Dame, 1 p.m.; No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 8 UConn, 5 p.m.; No. 4 USF vs. No. 5 Rutgers, 8 p.m.
Admission: Single-day passes are $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and children ages 5-13. Tournament passes are $32 for adults, $16 for seniors/children.
TV: All games shown live at bigeast.org, Sunday's championship is at noon on ESPNU.
USF's Herget honored
USF freshman pitcher Jimmy Herget was honored Tuesday as the Big East rookie of the year. The Jefferson graduate's 1.77 ERA is second best in the league. He will start tonight against Rutgers. Outfielder James Ramsay is USF's only first-team All-Big East selection. Herget was named to the second team; reliever Lawrence Pardo and shortstop Kyle Teaf made the third team. Notre Dame third baseman Eric Jagielo was player of the year, Louisville's Jeff Thompson was pitcher of the year and Pitt's Joe Jordano was coach of the year.