Eager to prove they were ready to compete with an overhauled roster, the No. 13 Florida Gators trotted out in front of the largest opening day crowd ever at McKethan Stadium on Friday evening.
The Gators quickly jumped on the scoreboard first, but unfortunately for them and the 5,771 fans in attendance, Florida was unable to hold on, eventually falling to the Duke Blue Devils, 4-3.
Florida’s defeat marked the first opening day loss for Kevin O’Sullivan since his arrival to Gainesville. With nearly all of Florida’s power bats yanked away by the MLB draft, the Gators struggle to produce on offense for much of the evening.
After a 1-2-3 first inning, the Gators returned to the plate in the second and quickly saw their first two batters sent back to the dugout on strikeouts. With two out and an 0-1 count, Justin Shafer hit a liner to right center. The ball then took an awkward bounce in front of center fielder Anthony D’Alessandro, allowing Shafer to turn the play into a double. Following a wild pitch which sent Shafer to third, and a Josh Tobias walk, Cory Reid singled down the right field line to bring home Shafer.
The lead would continue to hold for the Gators as starter Jonathan Crawford kept the Blue Devils in check until the early fourth inning when he walked the first batter and then promptly gave up a two-run home run to Jordan Betts.
After giving up a D’Alessandro triple three batters later, Crawford (3.2 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 4 K) was replaced by Daniel Gibson who finished off the inning without any more damage.
After giving up the single to Reid, Duke starting pitcher Trent Swart (6.0 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 4 K, 1 BB) was able to limit the Gators offensively until the sixth inning, when Florida freshman Harrison Bader was able to breakthrough with a single. Following Bader’s hit, Casey Turgeon singled to right, advancing Bader to third.
While senior Vickash Ramjit didn’t offer much on the night from his cleanup spot in the batting order, his sacrifice fly to left brought in Bader for the game-tying score.
With the shivering fans in McKethan Stadium again revved up, Florida appeared to again show signs of life. In the eighth inning however, the Gators would unknowingly give up the game’s deciding score.
For the second time, Florida gave up a leadoff walk which would come back to bite them only moments later. Immediately after Jeff Kramer walked to first base, Duke’s Mike Rosenfield would make the Gators pay when his triple brought Kramer home to put Duke back on top.
After a Casey Turgeon error on a routine groundball, Rosenfield would cross home plate to ensure the Devils’ lead.
With multiple runners on, the Gators would rally in the eighth, scoring a run off a wild throw on a pick-off attempt. However, Florida’s third run would be it’s last.
“First of all, I give Duke a lot of credit,” O’Sullivan said after the game. “I thought their starting pitcher [Trent Swart] did a really nice job – he kept us off-balance and made some big pitches. I thought Jonathon [Crawford] threw the ball well.
As far as both of those innings, both the fourth and the eighth, [each] started with lead-off walks and that’s kind of been a point of emphasis in the early part of the spring, but you have to give Duke all of the credit. I thought they played a really, really good game. There is always something to pull away from a game, whether you win or lose.”
The Gators now ready for the second matchup of the series on Saturday as they will throw 6’6 freshman Tucker Simpson at the Blue Devils. Game time is set for 4:00 p.m.