Florida shuts down third-ranked FSU

The magic act provided by the Florida bullpen on Tuesday night would have made David Copperfield ooze with jealousy. Florida’s relievers may have gotten themselves in trouble several times but they put on a pitching clinic when they had to get outs, helping the Gators to a 6-1 win over third-ranked Florida State before a record crowd of 5,719 at McKethan Stadium.

The Gators (15-3) got a good start by Stephen Locke, who turned the game over to the bullpen with one out in the sixth. Florida’s relievers came on to hold the mighty Seminoles (16-2) to only one run the rest of the way even though FSU loaded the bases in each of the sixth, seventh and eighth innings.

In the sixth, seventh and eighth, the Gators couldn’t keep FSU’s leadoff man off the base paths. Control was a problem as the relievers walked six batters in that three-inning span but somehow, in each inning, the Gators got out of the jams without a lot of damage.

The Gators ended the sixth when Josh Edmondson got a bases loaded comebacker and flipped it to catcher Buddy Munroe for the final out of the inning. The seventh ended when lefty specialist Tony Davis struck out Jason Stidham looking to end the inning. Kyle Mullaney ended the eighth inning by getting a fly out from pinch hitter Jack Rye.

“I was just hoping that we could make that one pitch [in those three innings],” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “Our bullpen has been real good all year. We’re starting to solidify some roles. Tony came in and made a huge pitch. We’re going to have to eliminate some of those leadoff walks. They’re killing us. We can’t get into deep counts with their leadoff hitter, especially with a three run lead.”

Locke was outstanding in his 5.1 innings of work. He gave up no runs, four hits and struck out three, keeping the Seminoles off balance by changing speeds and hitting his spots when it counted. Florida State’s four batters at the top of the order managed a combined 1-15 for the evening.

“I didn’t have great stuff tonight, but I got ground balls and guys made plays,” Locke said. “I got into trouble in the sixth, and Josh (Edmondson) came in and got me out of it. Josh got into trouble, then Tony (Davis) came in and got him out of it. It was a good effort on behalf of the pitchers.”

The performance by Locke came as no surprise to O’Sullivan. The head coach said the starting rotation will remain the same this weekend at Ole Miss but didn’t rule out the possibility of Locke becoming a weekend starter if one of the current three slips up.

“He was great tonight,” O’Sullivan said. “He threw strikes again and pitched into the sixth inning against a predominantly right handed lineup. That’s a team that was doing very well offensively. He might find himself getting one of those starts in the coming weekends in one of those guys falters.”

The Gator offense didn’t waste much time either. They threatened in the first inning with a runner on third and two outs, but Josh Adams went down on a fly out to end the threat. The first two hitters of the second inning went harmlessly before Dustin Bamberg, who came into the game 1-11 on the season, pounded a tape-measure shot over the left field bleachers to give the Gators an early 1-0 lead.

“I was so excited for him,” leadoff hitter Avery Barnes said. “It was a nothing-nothing game, and it was a momentum swing for us. It sparked us for sure.”

The Gators added a run in the fourth inning to push the lead to 2-0. Adams and Brandon McArthur hit back-to-back singles to start the inning. Jonathan Pigott smoked a line drive right at Florida State third baseman Stuart Tapley, who made the catch but threw the ball into right field trying to double up Adams at second. Bamberg followed with a walk and that brought on Seminole reliever Geoff Parker.  Parker got Jon Townsend hit a ground ball to first base, but Dennis Guinn had only one play at second base and that allowed Adams to score.

The Gators put two more runs on the board in the fifth. Avery Barnes, who extended his hitting streak to ten games, led off with a single and that was followed by an infield single by Matt den Dekker, who extended his hitting streak to 12 games. Cole Figueroa’s grounder to first was booted by Guinn to load the bases. Adams walked to bring home Barnes and McArthur beat the throw to first on a fielder’s choice that retired Adams at second to drive home the final run of the inning.

The Seminoles scored their only run of the game in the eighth inning off Gator reliever Clint Franklin. Florida State’s All-American catcher Buster Posey led off with a single into center fielder but Tony Delmonico struck out looking. Delmonico, whose dad was the Tennessee coach until he was fired last year, transferred to FSU in the offseason. Guinn followed with a double into the left-center gap to score Posey, ending the Gators’ chance to shut out the Seminoles for the first time since a 1994 game in Gainesville. 

The eighth inning served as the knockout punch for the Gators. The two-run inning started with a leadoff walk to Pigott. A Bamberg sacrifice bunt moved him to second base, before Townsend blooped a single into left field to give the Gators a 5-1 lead. Munroe then singled on a hit-and-run into left field, moving Townsend to third. Barnes squibbed a ball off the end of his bat into right field, driving in Townsend with the game’s final run.

Florida could have poured it on, but the Gators committed back-to-back base running errors to ice a potentially big inning. Munroe was picked off second base after he strayed too far when den Dekker tried to bunt. Barnes made the third out when he was picked off trying to steal second base on the first move by the left-handed pitcher. The aggressive base running philosophy by O’Sullivan makes these mistakes understandable, but he still isn’t happy about mental mistakes on the base paths.

“Buddy Munroe … I’m going to give him a little bit of slack since he caught a one run game,” O’Sullivan said with a smirk that wouldn’t have been there if the Gators lost. “He’s got to make sure the bunt gets down. Guys are going to make mistakes; you just hope they’re aggressive ones. The more you run, the more you’re going to run into outs. We just don’t like the mental mistakes.”

The Gator bullpen threw a total of 3.2 innings, surrendering one run and three hits. None of the pitchers’ time on the mound was more important than Mullaney’s. He threw 1.1 innings without letting a batter reach base. He retired Jack Rye, Tyler Holt, Jason Stidham and Buster Posey, four of the Seminoles most feared hitters. Mullaney was the Friday night starter in the beginning of the season, and Tuesday’s performance may have been a performance that gets him back on track.

“The confidence never really went away,” Mullaney said. “I’m working hard to throw more strikes. It gives me confidence to face a team like Florida State. I just want them to put it in play. I’ve got the best seven guys behind me I could ask for.”

The Gators play their first SEC road series this weekend at Ole Miss. The Rebels are one of the top teams in the nation, so the momentum from the Florida State victory will be put to test right away.