TAMPA ― In dire need of a confidence and conference boost, USF got both Friday night.
The Bulls got seven solid innings from right-handed starter Baron Stuart, and arguably the defensive play of the year from center fielder Kyle Phillips, in a 5-3 triumph against Houston in the opener of a critical three-game home series.
The victory was USF’s fifth in a row, though the first four were against non-league competition. The Bulls (20-20, 3-10) remain mired in ninth place in the American Athletic Conference standings, with two fewer league victories than any other AAC team.
Because only the top eight teams qualify for next month’s conference tournament in Clearwater, building on Friday’s momentum is paramount.
“Every day is a new opportunity. We’ve just got to keep fighting,” said second-year coach Billy Mohl, who has had seven pitchers on the shelf for various stretches this season.
“Over the course of the last 10 days, you’ve seen the fight that they’ve given. They’re just gonna keep fighting and pushing forward and see where we end up.”
Stuart (3-2), a 6-foot-4 sophomore recently thrust into a Friday night role, allowed three runs on five hits in a 104-pitch jewel.
After a 10-pitch first inning, he surrendered three consecutive one-out hits in the second, the final one a two-run double by shortstop Kobe Hyland. He needed only five pitches to get through the third, then allowed a one-out solo home run to freshman Derrick Cherry in the fourth.
“He made a few mistakes early, but he had really good fastball command for most of the night," Mohl said. "He left the one ball up to Cherry that got out, but overall he had a really good outing.”
USF’s offense then went to work.
The Bulls got a run back in the fifth on a one-out RBI-double to left center field by No. 9 batter Alex Bello (2-for-4, two RBI), who was thrown out at third to end the inning.
In the sixth, freshman designated hitter Julio Cortez laced a one-out RBI-single to right field off Houston reliever Sean Bretz to cut the Bulls’ deficit to 3-2.
With Cortez on second and senior Chris Chatfield on third, Bretz then walked junior Austin Bodrato to load the bases.
Catcher Tyler Dietrich followed with a sharp grounder to third off reliever Devon Roedahl for the easy force out, but third baseman Jared Triolo’s errant throw to first allowed two runs to score, giving the Bulls a 4-3 lead.
The play of the night followed.
With runners at the corners and one out in the seventh, Stuart forced a deep fly to center field, where Phillips snagged it and threw out freshman Brad Burckel ― who had tagged up ― at second base for a double play.
“That was the story of the game,” Mohl said. “That kinda flipped the momentum of the game.”
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Bello added a two-out RBI-single in the eighth. Closer Nelson Alvarez worked the final two innings for his sixth save.
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.