If there's a fast track to the postseason in baseball, it's having consistent starting pitching day in and day out.
With Opening Knight just about two weeks away, there are still spots up for grabs in the UCF starting rotation. While all eight starting position players return for the Knights with their jobs pretty much determined, most of the pitchers who return were in and out of the rotation all year, and will have to fight for the chance to return to that roll.
"There are a lot more questions on the mound than there is position player wise," said UCF head coach Terry Rooney. "That's not bad, but some guys got to emerge, that's what it is."
UCF does have at least one thing figured out in the rotation, and arguably the most important thing: its Friday night starter. In college baseball, the team's best pitchers, or aces, usually start on Friday nights, which is considered the marquee match-up in weekend series.
For UCF, that role will be filled by senior Zach Rodgers.
"I think Zach Rodgers starts the year as that guy; I think Zach has definitely earned it," Rooney said. "He did it all for us last year, you know, in the bullpen, start[ing]; so yeah, if we started tomorrow, Zach Rodgers would pitch on Friday night for us."
Outside of Eric Skoglund, who was drafted in the third round of the MLB First Year Player Draft by the Kansas City Royals, Rodgers was the best pitcher on the team for UCF last season. He started only seven games, but made 26 appearances, going 7-1 with a 1.36 ERA, tallying five saves and having a solid 3.71 K/BB ratio.
After Rodgers, though, things get a little more convoluted. There are at least six players on UCF's roster that have a shot at having a weekend role.
Four of them — Spencer Davis, Robby Howell, Ryan Meyer and Tanner Olson — started for UCF last season, with mixed results.
Davis and Howell started the year with weekend slots last season, but both ran into trouble with giving up too many walks as they got deeper into the year. Davis ended the year with a 4.20 ERA in 17 appearances, and Howell with a 5.79 in 13, though Howell did have his best start of the year in his last appearance, throwing 7.1 innings and allowing just one run in the AAC Tournament.
Meyer was coming off an injury heading into last season and couldn't pitch until April, but once he got onto the mound, he ended up with a solid performance on the season. He finished 3-1 with a 2.92 ERA. Meyer, however, like most of the UCF staff, struggled with giving people free passes. He walked 20 batters and hit four more in only 40 innings, which gave him more free passes (24) than strikeouts (22).
"There's no question we have to have better command of the strike zone," Rooney said. "We gave away too many freebies last year … I know at one point we led the nation in one-run games … well those walks are the difference.
"You walk the lead-off batter and he's pretty much gonna score every single time."
Perhaps the most interesting pitcher on the UCF staff is redshirt junior Mitchell Tripp. Tripp transferred to UCF last season, but didn't pitch due to injury. He transferred from Lower Colombia College in Washington — the same junior college that Olson came from, as well as UCF outfielder Derrick Salberg. Tripp was also clocked at 96 mph during the fall season.
What we don't know is how easy it's going to be for him to throw a lot of innings this season coming off injury. We also don't know if he can keep up his velocity in a starting role, or if he'll be more effective coming out of the bullpen, but he may be someone to watch for entering the season.
There are also several freshman on UCF's roster who have a chance of making an immediate impact. Cre Finfrock, for instance, might be in the running for a starting role.
But with incoming players it's always hard to know who the coaches will trust to put on the mound in the game. While it might not seem it at the time, any game could be the difference between making the NCAA tournament, or being one of the "last four out" like UCF was last season.
Opening Knight is Feb. 13, leaving UCF only about a week to make its decisions.
Colin Bell is a Senior Staff Writer for the Central Florida Future. Email him firstname.lastname@example.org.