Columbia, S.C. – One team got better as the game proceeded. The other team fell apart and allowed a golden opportunity to gain a game in the Southeastern Conference standings.
The #22-ranked University of Florida baseball team blew a two-run lead by making a pair of costly defensive errors while the #14-ranked South Carolina team put together a two-out rally to steal a 6-5 victory on a day when SEC leader Georgia dropped a game.
“We made some errors defensively and it killed us,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “If you go back and look at our schedule, I think this is the fifth one-run loss. It hasn’t been the hitting and the pitching, for the most part. It’s been the defense.”
Florida (28-17, 13-10 SEC) snapped a five-game errorless streak by making three errors in the game. The timing of the errors cost the Gators a game that was almost in hand.
“Unfortunately, they scored two runs in the bottom of the third,” O’Sullivan said. “With nobody on, we make a key error at third base, then we make another error on Merrifield’s hit (in the seventh). It’s difficult to grasp because if we just play solid defense and make the routine plays, and these are plays that we’re definitely capable of making, and that’s the frustrating part of it.”
Four of USC’s runs were unearned, something that had O’Sullivan feeling satisfied with the performance of his pitching staff.
“If you hold South Carolina down to six runs and only four of them are earned, you’ve got to feel good that you’re going to win just about every game,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s a hell of a lineup. But it we just play better defense, I’ll take that every time against at good-hitting club on the road – four earned runs – I’ll take that every time.”
Florida starting pitcher Stephen Locke threw 4.1 innings, allowing eight hits and two earned runs. Josh Edmondson (3-3) was tagged with the loss, pitching 2.2 innings in relief. Clint Franklin pitched 0.1 inning and Tony Davis pitched 0.2 innings to finish the game for UF.
South Carolina starting pitcher Will Atwood (5-2) threw his first career complete game and tied his career high with seven strikeouts to lead the Gamecocks over the Gators on Saturday at Sarge Frye Field.
“You’ve got to tip your hat to the guy,” Florida junior Avery Barnes said. “He threw a good ballgame today. There’s not much you can say.”
Barnes led the Gators with three hits and scored a run. He led off the game with an infield single for the second consecutive game and advanced to second base on a passed ball, but was left stranded as the Gators were kept off of the scoreboard in the first inning.
UF had eight of its nine starters each get a hit in the game for a total of 11.
“It was good to jump out early and put some runs up early, but the ballgame is nine innings,” Barnes said. “We just have to come out tomorrow and battle hard and play all nine innings tomorrow.”
USC leadoff hitter Reese Havens hit a deep fly ball to center field, backing up Matt den Dekker to the warning track before he could haul it in for the first out. Whit Merrifield laced a single to right field for the first Gamecock hit of the game, but Locke fielded a ground ball from Justin Smoak to get Merrifield out at second before Cole Figueroa retired Smoak at first on a smooth-looking double play to end the first inning.
Florida DH Dustin Bamberg hit a two-out single in the second inning and didn’t get to spend much time on time. Riley Cooper drilled a fastball for a home run over the center field wall to give the Gators a 2-0 lead. It was Cooper’s first career home run and second career hit.
“It felt good to get that home run after getting hit by a pitch three times yesterday,” Cooper said. “Coach is finally giving me a chance to get out there and play a little bit. I’m just trying to prove myself, trying to get back into the swing of things, trying to start recognizing pitches, seeing spins, things like that. I’m glad I got one finally.”
Teddy Foster walked to continue to two-out rally, prompting South Carolina coach Ray Tanner to pay Atwood a visit on the mound. Atwood wasn’t paying attention very well. Barnes roped a double down the right field line, forcing Foster to lumber his 240-lb. frame 270 feet around the bases. Foster was gunned down at the plate on a nice relay throw from second baseman Scott Wingo to end the inning.
The Carolina crowd of 5,136 wasn’t pleased when home plate umpire called a strike with James Darnell batting with a 3-0 count in the bottom of the second inning. The boos turned into cheers when Darnell crushed the next pitch over the left field wall for a solo home run. Harley Lail hit a ball to the right field gap, but Cooper made a nice catch as he ran into the wall for the second out of the inning. Andrew Crisp popped up to end the inning with Gators holding a 2-1 lead.
“I saw the wall coming, but I wanted to catch that ball,” Cooper said. “If I would have hit (the wall), I would have hit it.”
Florida added another run in the top of the third inning. Figueroa scored on an RBI single from den Dekker. He was in on third base courtesy of a stolen base and a sacrifice fly from Brandon McArthur. Matt den Dekker stole second base, but was stranded when Townsend flied out to left field.
Cooper made an another outstanding defensive play to begin the bottom of the third inning. Kyle Enders hit a fly ball into foul territory down the right field line. Running at full speed, Cooper reached out to make the grab.
“Growing up I always used to be a center fielder.,” Cooper said. “They stuck me in right (field), which is fine. It’s a little different out there. I’m starting to get the hang of it, the way the ball slices and things like that. I’m getting back into the groove of things, I’m happy.”
Scott Wingo grounded out to shortstop, then disaster struck for the Gators.
Havens singled to right field, then Merrifield hit a ground ball to the left side of the infield. Florida third baseman Jon Townsend ran in front of shortstop Figueroa trying to field a weakly hit grounder, but could not make the play and was charged with an error.
Smoak, a Pre-Season All-American, made the Gators pay for the error. Smoak hit a hard single to left field to drive in Havens. Darnell hit a double to the left field gap to tie the game at 3-3. Merrifield scored, but Smoak was thrown out at the plate on a nice relay from Figueroa to Foster. Smoak slid in with his left foot up at Foster’s waist in an attempt to jar the ball loose. Both runs in the inning were unearned.
When asked about what he could tell Townsend in regards to the errors, O’Sullivan said that there wasn’t much a coach could do with two weeks remaining in the regular season.
“Nothing. There’s nothing I can (tell him),” O’Sullivan said. “This is something we’ve dealt with throughout the season. This isn’t the first time this has happened. We’ve talked to him, but there’s nothing we can say. He’s going to be our starting third baseman. He’s going to have to pick his head up. We have confidence in him. He’s just got to have as equal confidence in himself.”
Florida countered with a two-out rally of its own in the fourth inning. Foster reached base on an infield single when Haven’s throw pulled Smoak off of first base. Barnes hit a single up the middle and Josh Adams singled through the left side of the infield to drive in Foster. Figueroa hit a ground ball off of Atwood, allowing Barnes to jump over the ball as it rolled across the third base line and give the Gators a 5-3 lead.
“That’s just the way baseball goes sometimes,” Barnes said about the plays near home plate. “Baseball can be a really exciting game at times. We’re just going to come out tomorrow and play hard and have a little fun tomorrow.”
Figueroa made a fielding error with two outs in the fourth to allow Crisp to reach base. Ender singled to right field, prompting action in the Florida bullpen. Locke nullified the rally by striking out Wingo looking at a nice curve ball.
The Gators would go down 1-2-3 every inning after the fourth. The only UF base runner during that stretch of 16 consecutive outs was Townsend, who hit a single in the eighth before getting thrown out at second trying for a double.
“Their pitcher started throwing off-speed stuff and we just couldn’t adjust,” Cooper said “That was our biggest problem.”
O’Sullivan credited Atwood’s 130-pitch performance, but said that his team needed to do a better job in the second half of the game.
“(Atwood) started getting his breaking ball over the plate early in the count,” O’Sullivan said. “Early in the game he was struggling getting his breaking ball over and got in a lot of fastball counts. We put some good swings on some balls. But then from the fifth inning on, he started dumping that breaking ball in earlier. We didn’t make very good adjustments. We’ve got to offensively make better adjustments quicker and not let the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth innings pass us by so all of a sudden we’re scrambling in the ninth.”
Merrifield was the beneficiary of another Townsend error in the fifth inning. Merrifield bunted to Townsend, who charged the call but threw it past the first baseman for an error. Merrifield scored on a single by Smoak to cut the UF lead to 5-4, prompting Edmondson to relieve Locke.
Edmondson struck out Darnell for the second out of the fifth, then allowed a single to Phil Disher. On the play, Smoak was thrown out at home plate for the second time in the game.
Foster made another outstanding defensive play in the sixth inning. He threw out Crisp at second base on a stolen base attempt.
South Carolina (32-15, 12-11) took a 6-5 lead by scoring two runs in the seventh inning. Havens walked with one out, and advanced to third base on a double by Merrifield. Florida elected to intentionally walk Smoak and load the bases.
Edmondson got Darnell to hit a ground ball, but it was out of the reach of Townsend and Figueroa and allowed Merrifield and Havens to score what would be the winning run.
Franklin took the ball to begin the eighth inning for UF. He struck out Crisp looking on an 0-2 pitch, but Enders singled to left field on the next pitch.
Davis entered the game to face left-handed batter Wingo. The lefty specialist got Wingo to ground to Adams at second base, who made a nifty flip with his glove to Figueroa to start a double play that ended the inning.
Trailing 6-5 in the top of the ninth inning, Cooper faced Atwood for the fourth time in the game. Cooper struck out swinging at a 1-2 pitch for the first out. Foster struck out swinging at a 2-2 pitch. USC third baseman Darnell caught a pop fly by Barnes in front of the Gators’ dugout to end the game.
“Tomorrow’s another day,” Barnes said. “We’re going to think about this one for a little while, then we’re going to have to do our best to let this one go and come out and play hard tomorrow. Tomorrow is a series day. We just have to come out and play hard and try to get it done tomorrow.”
Florida is slated to start junior right-handed pitcher Patrick Keating (8-0, 2.69 ERA) while the Gamecocks will counter with right-handed pitcher Blake Cooper (5-4, 3.52) on Sunday at 1:30 p.m.
When asked about his thoughts on starting Keating against a power-hitting Gamecock lineup, O’Sullivan was optimistic.
“I feel good about it,” O’Sullivan said. “We feel good with Keating out there, but he’s still going to have to throw good. It’s a very good lineup. I thought we got away with some pitches early in the game; we threw the ball up in the zone a little bit. We did have some guys at the plate who weren’t having success with breaking balls, but they put some good swings on it. Just because a guy could be susceptible to a breaking ball, you still have to put it in a good spot. “
Riley Cooper started in right field for the second consecutive day despite having only two career starts entering the weekend. O’Sullivan said that he feels Cooper has earned the right to play and gives the Gators an added spark in the lineup.
“He made a great play defensively in right-center,” O’Sullivan said. “It was a hell of a play he made in foul territory. He put a good swing on the ball to give us an early lead. I like having Riley out there. He gives us a little bit of an edge. He’s intense. He’s into it. He’s been playing well. He’s going to have to stay consistent. He’s a heck of an athlete. When he starts getting his timing back, he’s getting better and better each day, he’s going to be a pretty good player for us. There’s no question about that.”