Columbia, S.C. – Friday night satisfaction. Finally.
The no. 22-ranked Florida baseball team won a Friday night road game for the first time this season and ended a drought of four consecutive Friday night losses by defeating no. 14-ranked South Carolina 9-3 last night.
But don’t expect the Gators to be content after the win.
“We’ve gotta build on it, maybe get a couple more to finish out the season,” Florida shortstop Cole Figueroa said. “We’ve been playing with more intensity lately. We had a big series win against Georgia, we’re trying to build off of that. I think we’re just playing well right now.”
To say that the Gators (28-16, 13-9 SEC) are playing well is an understatement.
After kicking the ball around for at least one error in all but 15 games this season, UF has strung together five-straight errorless games.
One of the biggest concerns facing Gators fans was the decision to start freshman pitcher Tommy Toledo on a Friday night Southeastern Conference road game. Entering the night, Toledo had a 4-4 record and 3.40 ERA, but had not pitched since a 2.1 inning relief appearance against Kentucky on April 20.
Toledo silenced any doubters by pitching 3.2 innings and holding the Gamecocks to one run on three hits, three walks and a hit batter.
“Tommy came out, he battled for us, he got into some trouble early but he got out of it,” Figueroa said. “It was huge. Billy came in, threw really well. It was a full-team effort tonight.”
Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan was impressed with Toledo’s composure in a potentially hostile atmosphere. O’Sullivan was an assistant coach at USC’s bitter rival, Clemson, between 1999-2007, splitting 34 meetings.
“I thought he pitched well, he hung in there,” O’Sullivan said. “Obviously, he wasn’t as sharp as you’d like to be, but it’s not easy for a freshman to go on the road in the SEC and pitch against arguably the best lineup in the conference. I thought he hung in there. I was proud of him, the way he hung in there. The bottom line is he only gave up one run, so it’s a good outing.”
The only run allowed by Toledo was scored when James Darnell singled to third base, allowing Whit Merrifield to score. Merrifield had walked with one out in the first inning.
“Tommy did what he needed to do,” O’Sullivan said. “Whether you gave us 3.2 innings in the beginning or the end of the game with only one run, it’s a quality outing. He went through the order twice, he gave up one run. We pulled him and put in Billy because we wanted to switch it up and give a different feel the third time through the order.”
Billy Bullock took the ball after Toledo allowed a walk with two outs in the fourth inning and didn’t allow a run until freshman Scott Wingo belted a solo home run to right field to lead off the seventh inning. Reese Havens hammered a solo home run in the ninth inning that extended his hitting streak to 16 games.
“Sully sent me down (to the bullpen) in the third and told me to get mentally ready,” Bullock said. “I thought Tommy was cruising towards the end there.”
Bullock (4-3) struck out a career-high seven hitters in 5.1 innings, allowing just four hits, two walks and the two solo home runs, to earn the victory.
“Coming out, I knew I had to throw first-pitch strikes,” Bullock said. “I had to attack. They are a pretty free-swinging team, so I knew I had to pound the zone early.”
Bullock allowed seven runs against Georgia last week, but was happy to get the offensive support from his teammates.
“When the guys hit the ball like that, it’s pretty easy to pitch,” Bullock said. “You don’t have to worry about much. They swung the bat real well tonight.”
In the loss to Georgia, Bullock also struck out seven batters. He has pitched at least six innings in eight of his 12 appearances this season, but felt that Friday’s relief appearance was his best of the year.
“It’s the best (performance) I’ve had so far,” Bullock said. “I just have to build on it and keep going forward. The last two were pretty rocky. It’s good to get this one under my belt and get back on track.”
Despite struggling against Georgia and Kentucky, Bullock said he never questioned his ability.
“I know that when I go out there, I can shove it up anybody,” Bullock said. “Just to do it and to get that confidence back after two bad outings the last two weeks is huge.”
O’Sullivan credited Bullock’s performance to his efforts in practice.
“Bullock has been working really hard to not throw the ball across his body,” O’Sullivan said. “He got the ball down more consistently tonight. His slider was sharp.”
While the Florida pitchers held South Carolina’s potent offense in check, senior first baseman Brandon McArthur and the Gators were able to provide plenty of run support, starting with the first pitch of the game.
“We wanted to get off to a good start,” McArthur said. “They came off of a rough weekend last week and wanted to come out of the gates as well. When Avery (Barnes) got that first-pitch hit, I had a good feeling from then on.
Barnes stole second and scored on a single by Figueroa to give the Gators a 1-0 lead.
McArthur led the Gators with three hits and two RBIs.
“As the game went on, I think there was only three innings when we didn’t score a run,” McArthur said. “We didn’t stop, and that was big. We never let up. That’s what we’ve been doing the last couple of weekends and that’s what we have to keep doing.”
UF had two midweek games against Florida Gulf Coast University cancelled during the week because of a scheduling mistake, but the players utilized the time to work on fundamentals in practice.
“We had a really good workout again this past week,” McArthur said. “We were upbeat every practice. A lot of people were upset because the games (this week) were off, and we were too, but we didn’t take the whole week off. We kept preparing ourselves and I think we came out with a little buzz last night practicing here at the field and tonight, the same thing. Obviously, they have a really good crowd here, but we got off on the right foot tonight.”
Despite playing with a ruptured ACL in his left knee, McArthur ran the bases well and didn’t leave the game after stopping short while rounding third base in the third inning.
“(My knee) jarred a couple of times,” McArthur said. “It didn’t feel the best. It hurt pretty bad.”
Florida was treated to eight baserunners. Gamecock pitchers allowed four walks and four hit batters.
Those mistakes would come back to haunt USC.
“We got, I think, five two-out runs tonight again, which is key,” O’Sullivan said. “We battled at the plate. We didn’t give up at bats. We battled even though the inning wasn’t over with two outs.”
South Carolina starting pitcher Mike Cisco’s record fell to 5-3 on the season after he allowed eight hits and a hit batter in three innings. Cisco let up four runs, but only one was earned.
The three unearned runs were scored in the third inning when Barnes hit a pop fly foul toward the South Carolina dugout. Gamecock first baseman Justin Smoak dropped the ball a few feet shy of the dugout, extending the inning for the Gators’ three-run rally on six hits.
Barnes batted 2-for-4, scored three runs and stole two bases.
Riley Cooper started in right field, a move that paid off as Cooper reached base three times after getting hit by a pitch, stole two bases and made five putouts.
“(Cooper) ran the bases well,” O’Sullivan said. “He played good defense. His timing is good too. He laid off some breaking balls down in the zone, it was a good game. Even thought it may not show up in the box score, I thought he played very, very well.”
O’Sullivan did his share of running on the field too.
In the fifth inning, Matt den Dekker was called safe at first base on a bunt to the pitcher. USC coach Ray Tanner made a boisterous protest to first base umpire Ken Couch, asking for home plate umpire Steve Manders to overturn the call.
After several minutes of deliberation, Manders motioned for O’Sullivan to approach the umpires. Manders explained that the call was being reversed and den Dekker was out.
“The umpire got blocked,” O’Sullivan said. “The second baseman blocked him with the call. He thought he had it right, then they convened together and turned the call.
“From what I’m being told, people who saw the replay said he got it right. Ultimately, that’s all you want. Of course you want close calls to go your way, but ultimately when the umpires get the call right, that’s all coaches can ask for.
“It kinda slowed the game up a little bit, but like I said, as long as they get the call right, even though it goes against you – in the long run if they can get the calls right, those things don’t dictate how the game goes in the end.
McArthur advanced to second and Figueroa advanced to third base on den Dekker’s sacrifice bunt.
Senior third baseman Jon Townsend stepped to the plate as the crowd of 4,861 fans continued to make noise following Tanner’s tirade.
“I thought the big at bat was when the play was called at first base and they turned the call,” O’Sullivan said. “Jon Townsend came up with a big hit there. The momentum could have changed and the fans kind of get into it a little bit. If we didn’t score there, that could have changed the momentum of the game, but Jon hung in there and put a good swing on the ball and drove in another run, so it was a big hit for us.”
Townsend batted 2-for-5 in the game.
Florida added two runs in the sixth on a two-RBI single by McArthur, then scored a run in the eighth and ninth inning.
The Gators remain 3.5 games behind first place Georgia after the Bulldogs defeated Ole Miss 5-4.
In Saturday’s game, Florida junior lefty Stephen Locke (3-2, 3.21) will attempt to give the Gators their second win of a three-game series in visits to Columbia since South Carolina joined the SEC in 1992.
The Gamecocks (31-15, 11-11 SEC) are expected to start a southpaw as well. Will Atwood (4-2, 4.22) will attempt to stop South Carolina’s four-game losing streak.