The first inning and a half of the Kevin O’Sullivan era brought back appalling memories of last season but once the Gator bats got untracked and Billy Bullock came out of the bullpen to put out a raging fire, the bad times were forgotten quickly. By the time Bullock finished six sparkling innings of relief, the Gators were on cruise control to 10-7 season-opening victory over Siena before a season-opening crowd of 3,408 at McKethan Stadium.
Bullock doused Siena’s red hot bats to save the Gators from starting the season with a loss. His six innings of one-run baseball were crucial for the Gators to save arms from the bullpen with Saturday and Sunday games remaining in the series.
Bullock threw 63 pitches in six innings, less than starter Kyle Mullaney threw in the first three in which he gave up nine hits and six earned runs. Bullock’s performance impressed O’Sullivan, now 1-0 as a college head coach.
“He’s been working on a lot of things,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s moved his arm over and repeats his delivery better. We keep telling him that he’s close. Sure enough, he showed up tonight. He kept the ball down.”
If there is anything Bullock’s performance proved, it is that the Florida pitching rotation is far from cemented.
“I think there are six or so guys that could be battling for those three spots,” O’Sullivan said. “I don’t think there was ever a question that we thought Billy Bullock was good enough to be one of those three starters. If Billy doesn’t throw the way he did (tonight), who knows what happens?”
After giving up one run in the inning and two-thirds, Mullaney seemed to lose control. Back-to-back singles, followed by a four pitch walk loaded the bases for Moises Rivera who drove in a first inning run with a single to center field. Rivera followed up that at-bat by depositing a 2-2 pitch over the wall in left center field for grand slam that gave the Saints a 5-0 lead.
Although they were down 5-0, the Gators didn’t panic. They’ve been preparing for just such situations during the pre-season scrimmages.
“That’s the way the scrimmages have been organized,” said first baseman Brandon McArthur. “The way it went was either orange or blue was ahead by five and had to come back. If you didn’t come back, you lost and then had to run. There really wasn’t any panic. We just kept saying that we need to chip away. That’s how we’ve been taught to play the game.”
While Siena came out swinging the bats confidently, the Gators had a sluggish look in the first inning but all that changed in the second when Florida struck back for five runs to tie the game. After Bryson Barber led off the second with a walk, senior Jon Townsend lined a home run over the wall in left field to get the Gators on the scoreboard.
“He came up clutch right there,” McArthur said. “Bryson led off and then John hit it. Like I said, we were chipping away. That was our mindset all game and luckily we came out on top.”
Following the homer, Josh Adams hit a towering fly ball to left field that was dropped and Jonathan Pigott followed with a single, advancing to second on the throw. Two ground outs and a single tied the game at 5-5.
Siena regained the lead when Mullaney allowed a leadoff home run to Anthony Giansanti, but he worked his way through the rest of the third inning unharmed. That brought on Bullock, who knew that he would get the call if Mullaney had any early trouble. His formula for success was pretty simple.
“I was throwing fast balls and curve balls early in the count and making them hit it on the ground,” Bullock said. “We’ve got one of the best defenses, I swear. I just tried to come in and keep it close because our offense isn’t going to be shut out by anybody. I was really trying to just get ahead early.”
The only run Bullock gave up was on a meaningless solo homer in the ninth inning. Even though he started on Sundays for the Gators last season, he says he doesn’t feel slighted to come out of the bullpen at the beginning of this year and will continue to work for a spot in the rotation.
“I had a shot to start when we came back in the spring, but I did pitch as well as I hoped,” Bullock said. “Now I’m in the bullpen and just hoping to help the team get it done. We’ve got guys who can throw. Nothing is set in stone yet though.”
Florida tied the game at 6-6 in the fourth inning when Clayton Pisani coaxed a two-out walk and pinch-hitter Cole Figueroa smacked a line drive double off the left center field wall to drive him home.
Florida got control of the game in the sixth inning with a four-run rally that began with an Avery Barnes single and a walk to Pisani. O’Sullivan crossed up the Saints when he had Figueroa, his most consistent hitter, lay down a bunt to advance the runners. That set the stage for McArthur to hammer a triple over the head of Siena’s center fielder to give the Gators the lead for good. Townsend then walked and stole second and Adams fisted a single into left that drove home Florida’s final two runs.
Adams was excited for his first start as a Gator and his chance to contribute.
“It was exciting to come out and play,” Adams said. “We’ve been practicing all year getting ready for this. It’s kind of sweet coming out and hearing the “Here Come the Gators!” I was fired up and ready to go.”
Thanks to Bullock’s performance, the final three innings were smooth sailing for the Gators.
In addition to this being the first game of the Kevin O’Sullivan era as Florida’s head coach, the game marked the return of McArthur from another serious injury. The significance of coming back from a debilitating injury wasn’t lost on McArthur, who just four years ago battled for his life after he was sucker punched on University Avenue late one evening. Last year he tore a muscle in Florida’s first game of the season and missed the rest of the year.
“It was actually during the national anthem,” McArthur said. “It kind of got me a little bit, just getting a chance to step on the field again. I talked to some of the guys before the game, and I think it was about this time last year I was in surgery. What a great way to compete, be challenged and come out on top.”
The Gators were happy to get a win for a brand new coaching staff, too.
“All this really shows how much they’ve gotten us ready to go because they’ve pushed us non-stop and always wanted to help us,” McArthur said. “Obviously it didn’t look that good, but then to come back and win it for them is a great feeling.”
GAME NOTES: The three loudest ovations during player introductions were Brandon McArthur, Cole Figueroa and football player Riley Cooper … Jon Townsend’s two-run home run marked back-to-back opening nights with a homerun … The Gators stole four bases Friday night … Gator pitchers walked two batters, and Sienna pitchers combined for eight walks … Freshman Josh Adams went 2-5, while reaching on two errors … Jonathan Pigott went 2-3, and reached base twice more on two at-bats where he was hit by a pitch.