UF ready for UK tilt with title on line

After a Tuesday night loss for No. 4 Florida (39-14, 20-7 SEC) against Jacksonville (33-18, 18-9 ASUN), the team hopes to strike back in full force when it hosts Kentucky (24-28, 7-20 SEC) at McKethan Stadium on Thursday at 7 p.m.

“The only thing we can do is move forward, have a good practice today and play well this weekend,” head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said.

Heading into the series against Kentucky, Florida is in a three-way tie for the SEC lead with South Carolina and Vanderbilt. The Gators can clinch the league title with a series sweep.

Knowing that, O’Sullivan and the Gators won’t be watching the scoreboard for the South Carolina and Vanderbilt games like they have the past few weeks.

“Our focus this weekend is going to be Kentucky,” he said. “We are in good position, but we have got to play well. Kentucky is going to play us really tough this weekend. They got one of the best pitchers in the country going on Friday night. They have got good players. It is not going to be easy, and they have always played us tough. We are going to have to be on the top of our game.”

Kentucky will showcase their ace, junior right-hander Alex Meyer (6-5, 3.06 ERA), on Friday night in the second game of the series, which has caused an adjustment to Florida’s normal weekend rotation.

Instead of starting sophomore righty Hudson Randall (8-2, 214 ERA) on Thursday, the Gators will pitch Randall against Meyer on Friday at 7 p.m.

Sophomore left-hander Brian Johnson (7-3, 3.38 ERA) will start for the Gators in the series opener Thursday against Kentucky sophomore left-hander Taylor Rogers (3-6, 5.06 ERA).

The Gators will pitch freshman right-hander Karsten Whitson (6-0, 2.51 ERA) on Saturday at 4 p.m., while Kentucky has not yet announced their pitcher for the series finale.

Despite his talent and the fact that Florida has changed their pitching rotation because of him, O’Sullivan isn’t even thinking about facing Meyer yet.

“We have got a game tomorrow night, and Taylor Rogers is throwing,” he said. “I am not even worried about Friday night to be honest with you. Right now, I am worried about tomorrow night, and then when Friday morning comes, we will turn our focus toward Meyer.”

Florida’s chance to compete for its second-straight SEC title on the final weekend is nothing new for the Gators.

“We were at the same stage last year,” sophomore catcher Mike Zunino said. “Last year it was tough, but it is going to be the same caliber atmosphere this year.”

The catcher knows the game against Kentucky won’t be easy.

“We know we have to play our best baseball the whole time,” he said. “We can’t take any innings off, can’t take any pitches off. We just have to come out focused.”

Sophomore shortstop Nolan Fontana reiterated that message.

“Take it one pitch at a time,” Fontana said “That’s how we took Sunday’s game against Vandy and things worked out for us. We just gotta take it one game at a time, and it’s in our control.”

Fontana also said it’s a relief not to have to worry about what the other teams in the race are doing. If the Gators take care of business, they’ll win the SEC title. 

“We don’t have to worry much about what other teams are doing,” he said. “If we just play our game well, and we don’t worry about anything else but ourselves, I think we will be alright.”

The shortstop is ready to play for a title in front of the home crowd.

“We love playing here,” he said. “We have great fans. We feel comfortable here. We control our own destiny, and it’s here at home.”