One big step forward, two steps back.
That summarizes an exhilarating, yet maddening week of baseball for the University of South Florida Bulls.
USF opened plenty of eyes on Tuesday night, when it topped the No. 2-ranked Florida Gators 5-3 in Gainesville, ending a 12-game losing streak at the hands of UF.
Then, while holding a share of the Big East Conference lead, the Bulls promptly dropped two of three at home against middle-of-the-pack Villanova. USF avoided the sweep on Sunday afternoon with a 3-1 victory against the Wildcats.
The Bulls (29-16, 12-6) already have surpassed last season's victory total, when 25-win USF didn't qualify for the Big East tournament in Clearwater. But after failing to fully capitalize on a weekend opportunity against Villanova, though, the Bulls are not nearly where they want to be.
"For two days, we were told how great we were,'' USF coach Lelo Prado said after losing Friday night's series opener. "Yeah, we beat Florida. You do have to follow that up.
"Overall, we've played pretty good. But if we're going to be the best in the Big East and we want to be a great team, we've got to bring the same level every night. We don't do that sometimes. When we don't do that, we're an average club.''
Before the season began, Prado said USF might resemble a collegiate version of the Tampa Bay Rays.
"Pitching and defense,'' Prado said. "That's who we are.''
Sure enough, pitching largely has carried the Bulls. Left-handed ace Andrew Barbosa (5-4, 2.63 ERA) is among the Big East's most dynamic performers after missing most of last season with Tommy John surgery. He has 81 strikeouts in 61 2/3 innings. But he has received minimal run support. Fellow weekend starters Joey Lovecchio (7-2, 4.27) and Derrick Stultz also have enjoyed outstanding moments.
The offense has come through in spots. Sophomore right fielder James Ramsay of Brandon High paces the Bulls in batting average and hits. Senior catcher Andrew Longley of Sickles High is tied for the USF lead in homers (six) with senior third baseman Daniel Rockhold. Longley had two solo shots at Florida.
"This is one of the best teams I've ever been a part of,'' Longley said. "Last year was a letdown, but we all still had faith in ourselves because we know what kind of guys we are. We have improved. But we can't stop now. We've got a long way to go to reach the ultimate goal.''
For USF, that goal hasn't changed.
Prado, in his sixth season, is aiming for USF's return to the NCAA regionals, where the Bulls haven't played since 2002.
"There's no reason why we can't get there,'' Ramsay said. "The game at this level is all about consistency. I found that out (as a freshman, batting .250). Every at-bat was a crisis. I took my failures out to the field. Now I'm much better equipped to go through the grind, balancing failure and success.
"And that's what we have to do as team. We went up to Florida and beat a team filled with All-Americans. We've got to have that same approach for every team. We've got everything we need for success at USF.''
That includes a USF Baseball Stadium in its second year, a far cry from the old Red McEwen Field, the program's centerpiece.
"It's one of the best ballparks in America,'' Longley said. "It's beautiful. Not many get to play in a park like this. We all love it. We just need to play more consistently in our home park and on the road for that matter.''
The Bulls have 10 regular-season games remaining, including this week's road series against Big East frontrunner St. John's, before the May 23-27 conference tournament at Clearwater's Bright House Field.
USF has improved enough to be virtually certain of making the Big East field this time. But making the next step as a program?
"Pitching and defense wins championships,'' Ramsay said. "A few more timely hits sure help you win even more games along the way. That's what we need.''