With the game and series victory hanging in the balance, two Florida freshmen stepped up for the Gators baseball team.
After missed opportunities for a run by the No. 6 Kentucky Wildcats (36-11, 14-9), the duo of Casey Turgeon and Josh Tobias took advantage of a tiring Jared Grundy and teamed up for the go-ahead run in a 5-1 Florida win Friday night.
The fifth-ranked (35-12, 14-9) Gators clinched their fifth Southeastern Conference series this season and moved into a tie with Kentucky in the Eastern Division.
Coupled with a Justin Shafer sacrifice fly in the ninth, Florida freshmen had a hand in three of five runs.
In a year in which the Gators started four frosh in the lineup in the season opener, these freshmen matured a ton, Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan said.
“They’re no longer freshmen now,” O’Sullivan told the IMG Gator Sports Network. “They’ve been playing long enough this year in some really tough situations. I consider them older kids at this point.”
Turgeon bested all players with his three hits Friday, which marked the fifth game he reached that number.
He entered the series batting .177 in SEC play.
The freshman started the eighth with a triple off the right field wall and scored on a Tobias single to center.
“Casey had a great night,” O’Sullivan said. “I know his numbers in the league don’t look great, but I tell you what he hits the hardest two and some change I think I’ve ever seen.”
Both teams entered the eighth inning with just one run on the scoreboard, but Kentucky left 10 runners on base in the first seven.
Florida right-hander Karsten Whitson flirted with danger all night, but his 4.2 innings were the most since the opening series of 2012 vs. Cal State Fullerton.
A runner advanced to second base in four of five frames he appeared in.
The sophomore recovered from a shaky start in which he hit, walked and allowed an RBI single to the first three batters he faced. Whitson tossed 4.2 frames of six hit ball with a season high 78 pitches.
He entered the game with a pitch target of 75 and if it wasn’t for a four pitch intentional walk in the fourth, Whitson accomplished just that.
The sophomore from Chipley, Fla., hasn’t regained his freshman All-American form due to various early season injuries, but O’Sullivan said Whitson is working hard.
O’Sullivan expects his young pitcher with ace-like stuff to continue improving.
“He still is knocking the rust off,” O’Sullivan said. “I was really proud of the way he competed tonight.”
Freshman left-hander Bobby Poyner replaced Whitson in the fifth and the score still tied at one.
Poyner encountered trouble in his first full inning of work giving up a double and a single to start the sixth.
Kentucky shortstop Matt Reida, with runners on the corners and no outs, grounded out to first baseman Brian Johnson who threw out Michael Williams at home after the Kentucky catcher tried scoring from third.
Florida benefited from its second-straight errorless game in the series.
The Gators are 19-2 in games in which they don’t commit an error.
Florida leads the SEC with a .980 fielding percentage.
“It’s one thing to play errorless ball at home, but when you go on the road and you play errorless ball, that’s a heck of an accomplishment,” O’Sullivan said. “Really pleased with how we are playing defense. Obviously it’s giving our pitchers a lot of confidence.”
Greg Larson came in for Poyner in the sixth and four of five batters he faced. He earned the victory and Steven Rodriguez pitched a perfect two innings for his second save this season.
Florida attempts an SEC sweep at 2 p.m. Saturday at Cliff Hagan Stadium in Lexington, Ky. The conference sweep would be the first since Florida took three straight from Vanderbilt to open SEC play Mar. 16.
“You don’t get many chances to go for sweeps,” O’Sullivan said. “I know our guys are excited. It’s been a great accomplishment so far. Obviously I would expect us to come out and play well again tomorrow.”
– Preston Tucker sits six hits away from breaking another record held by former Florida second baseman Mark Ellis. The 314 career hits from Tucker rank second behind Ellis for the all-time school record.
– Although Steven Rodriguez picked up his second straight save and threw a combined 50-plus pitches in consecutive days, O’Sullivan said Rodriguez would be available for Saturday’s series finale.
– Turgeon tripled for the second time in his career and became the tenth Florida player to do so this season.
* A University of Florida radio broadcast contributed to this report.