CLEARWATER — A mid-game meltdown saw the University of South Florida baseball team give away a 7-0 lead in the fifth inning and lose 8-7 to Connecticut in the Big East tournament Thursday.
With a win, USF could have earned Friday off to rest and been in pole position to reach the Big East championship game.
Instead, the Bulls will meet Rutgers in an elimination game at 6 p.m. Friday in hopes of earning a rematch with UConn on Saturday. The Bulls would need to beat Rutgers and then beat the Huskies twice on Saturday to reach the championship game.
“You're up 7-0, you have to finish the job,” USF coach Lelo Prado said. “It's just disappointing. … We just gave that game away. We had a 7-0 lead with (starting pitcher) Nick Gonzalez on the mound.”
The Bulls were in control early, scoring single runs in each of the first two innings, before taking a commanding lead in the top of the fourth inning.
USF's Levi Borders and Nik Alfonso got on base via walk and single and then Alex Mendez, James Ramsay and Jimmy Falla unleashed three consecutive RBI doubles to pile on four more runs and take a 6-0 lead through four innings.
The Bulls added what felt at the time like an insurance run in the top of the fifth inning with an Alfonso RBI double that scored Borders.
Then the wheels really fell off for starter Nick Gonzalez and the Bulls.
Gonzalez loaded the bases with two walks and a hit batsman and the eighth-seeded Huskies started a two-out rally that pulled Connecticut within a run at 7-6.
Billy Ferriter started it with a two-run single, followed by RBI singles by LJ Mazzilli and Vinny Siena.
The Bulls would be held scoreless from that point and UConn tied the game in the bottom of the eighth inning with a Jon Testani sacrifice fly that scored Siena.
The Huskies won the game in the ninth inning after designated hitter Stanley Paul drove a ball into right field for an error of the glove of USF's Anthony Diaz. Paul reached third base on a wild pitch by Jordan Strittmatter. Strittmatter then intentionally walked the next two batters to load the bases.
Paul scored the winning run on a Strittmatter wild pitch to send the Huskies directly to Saturday's semifinals.
“Again, what's killed us all year, the wild pitches, passed balls, that hurt us again tonight,” Prado said. “We were up 7-5 and had a wild pitch. You can't have that. We've done that all year. In close games and in tournaments, that'll kill you.”
USF will start right-handed pitcher Joey Lovecchio against Rutgers in an elimination game. The Bulls beat the Scarlet Knights 5-2 in their tournament opener Wednesday night.