Winning a series opener against a top-10 opponent — as Florida did against No. 8 South Carolina on Thursday — was nothing new for the Gators.
In the opening games against division foes Vanderbilt (ranked No. 2 at the time) and Kentucky (then ranked No. 10), the Gators cruised to easy victories before ultimately floundering on both weekends.
Thus, while promising, Thursday’s thrilling 3-2 triumph offered no assurances of any kind. If Florida truly desired a way to prove it had begun turning the corner, a series victory would be more convincing.
On Friday, the Gators captured just that, using a two-run eighth inning rally to defeat the Gamecocks 4-3, officially taking its second series win of conference play.
The win moves Florida (18-18, 7-7) back to .500 for the first time since early March. While their current record shows signs of improvement by the Gators, Kevin O’Sullivan would prefer if his team doesn’t get caught up in their current success.
“I’m pleased with how we’re playing and how we’re competing,” O’Sullivan said. “If we continue to play well and improve and we compete like we have, at the end of the year, we’ll be where we need to be.
“But I don’t want us to count wins and losses. The only thing we can take care of is how we play … We’re too inexperienced, and we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves — we’ve just got to stay the course and take care of the things we can control.”
As was the case on Thursday, Florida capitalized on a Carolina mistake to take an early lead, as an error by pitcher Jordan Montgomery allowed for a Richie Martin score.
The Gamecocks would tie things up in the third, before taking their first lead of the series in the fourth, which came on a Connor Bright home run off Florida pitcher Danny Young.
Despite giving up two runs, Young was solid on Friday, pitching 4.1 innings and striking out two. Florida would go to its bullpen several times on the night, turning to freshman Mike Vinson and sophomore Bobby Poyner, before bringing in Aaron Rhodes (who was credited with the win) in the seventh.
Meanwhile, the Florida offense struggled against USC reliever Adam Westmoreland, as the 6-foot-5 270 pounder retired nine straight Gator batters at one point.
Carolina would take a two run lead in the eighth, putting immense pressure on the Florida bats, which had been ineffective all night.
Casey Turgeon led off the bottom of the eighth inning with a single, and eventually moved over to second following a Justin Shafer hit. With two on, senior Vickash Ramjit drew a walk from Westmoreland, loading the bases.
Josh Tobias would ground out in the following at-bat, and while the plate appearance resulted in an RBI, it also gave the Gators two outs with freshman Harrison Bader stepping up to the plate.
With two onboard, the New York-native Bader seized his moment. Nailing a hard liner to left field, both Shafer and Ramjit would score, giving the Gators the lead and essentially the series.
“Probably the biggest hit of his career so far,” O’Sullivan said of Bader after the game. “He’s starting to grow up right before our eyes.”
On Thursday, O’Sullivan showed just how much this series meant to Florida by brining in Johnny Magliozzi to close out the game. Magliozzi was slated as Florida’s starting pitcher for Saturday, and O’Sullivan admitted he might have over thought the situation.
On Friday however, O’Sullivan had no qualms about bringing in Magliozzi in the ninth inning to finish the game off, aware that his appearance would render him out for Saturday’s finale.
Magliozzi walked leadoff man Tanner English – who represented the tying run — before intentionally walking USC RBI leader LB Dantzler. With two outs though, Magliozzi would strike out Brison Celek to end the game, letting out an exuberant scream in the process.
The save was the eighth of the season for Magliozzi, whose scream was one mixed with both excitement and relief. The Gators have battled hard to get to their current standing, and although the job is far from finished, it was hard for the team not to get a little emotional on Friday.
“Baseball is a funny game, a game of percentages that if you stay the course, it’ll come back to you,” O’Sullivan said. “Its just this time of year, we’ve been on the right side of things. But a lot of that had to do with inexperience I think, early on. It’s not an excuse, but we just quite, as a team, weren’t collectively at a point where we could close out games.
“But we’ve learned from it, we’ve played a very difficult schedule, and I think it’s starting to pay off now. We’ve started to show some more grit, and we’re handling these later situations in the game, these type of situations better than we did earlier in the year.”
Even though the series is wrapped up, Florida has a chance to take its first conference sweep should they win on Sunday. A victory would also mark the fifth straight win over a ranked opponent.
With so much still ahead of them, Bader dropped an often-used cliché in regards to Florida’s approach.
“You just go game bye game, pitch by pitch,” Bader said. “When you think of it that way, the game is a lot more simple.”