TAMPA — Against all odds, against all reason, the USF baseball team has reached super regionals for the first time in school history, a series that begins Saturday night at perennial powerhouse Texas.
No one really believed these Bulls had a chance. No one, that is, except the Bulls themselves.
Before the season, USF’s own league, the American Athletic Conference, picked it to finish last among their eight teams. Then, after pulling off the upset to win the conference tournament, all the prognosticators, including Baseball America, picked USF to finish last in regionals.
In the first week of June, the fourth or lowest-seeded Bulls, walked into Gainesville’s regional and won three of their next four games: including victories over top-seeded Florida (5-3) and highly-regarded Miami (10-2), before ultimately beating South Alabama 6-4 in the title game.
Improbable to say the least, considering that on May 20, USF was 22-26 after a 5-2 loss to East Carolina.
Since then, USF has gone 9-2, a stretch that gave them the school’s first AAC baseball title and first regional title.
Texas, by comparison, has a national-record 36 College World Series appearances and six national titles, and is ranked No. 2 with a 45-15 record. USF will take its 31-28 record into the raucous confines of soldout UFCU Disch-Falk Field, which holds 6,649 fans.
Coach Billy Mohl and his Bulls say bring it on.
“We have a loose, energetic group here,” Mohl said. “We might be young (roster features 18 true or redshirt freshmen, 10 sophomores, five juniors and four seniors), but we are loose. They don’t seem to get bothered by big crowds (see, at Texas Tech in the regular season).”
Added redshirt freshman Orion Kerkering: “We are the underdogs and we have nothing to lose. When we were the lowest seeds, we had nothing to lose. We just went out and played ball. We were just playing for each other, which is all we can do. And that’s how we are continuing to look at it.”
Mohl added some perspective on his group’s late-season surge with a cooking reference: “If you want a good lasagna, you can’t cook it in the microwave. A good lasagna takes time to put together, and get it seasoned just right, and it takes time to cook. And then once it’s prepared properly, it tastes awesome.”
“I like good lasagna,” said junior Riley Hogan, who is hitting .280 for the season but has been particularly hot during the playoffs. “And no, you can’t make good lasagna in the microwave.”
In other words, all the USF youngsters took the regular season to get prepared properly for the postseason.
Kerkering, for instance, was lights out in 4.1 innings in the regional final against South Alabama, allowing one run on two hits while striking out five and walking none. And at the plate it was Jarrett Eaton, a redshirt sophomore, who came through big, going 3-for-3 with three RBIs and a run scored, his biggest hit a two-run, ground-rule double in the fourth inning with two outs.
In the end, like they have done many times in the 11 games down the final stretch, USF took tremendous advantage of its opportunities.
“When it comes to this time of year it often comes down to who makes the least mistakes,” Mohl said. “We’ve done a good job of limiting our mistakes and then taking advantage of (the opponents’ mistakes).”
Against Texas, USF no doubt will have to be sharper than ever.
The Longhorns have four players hitting over .300 and multiple pitchers with ERAs under 3.00. As a team, Texas hits for a .282 average and averages 6.8 runs a game, while USF counters with a .264 team average and 5.3 runs a game.
The Bulls, however, have been better than their averages during their latest run through the playoffs, including leadoff hitter Carmine Lane. The redshirt freshman leads the team with a .326 average and 40 runs scored, and has hit in nine of the past 11 games.
“Up and down our lineup we have had guys step and make plays and get the key hits,” Mohl said. “It has been so much fun to watch these guys come together.
“The most gratifying thing is watching those guys dog pile (near the mound after a victory). I know you’re not supposed to dog pile until after you win a national championship, but being around these guys, seeing them do what they’re doing now, I love to see the dog pile. Watching those guys celebrate like that, that’s the ultimate.”
USF at Texas, 9 p.m. Saturday
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