Gators’ fast start keyed by pitching

A record crowd of 5,719 gathered at McKethan Stadium to witness the Florida baseball team’s dismantling of the third ranked Florida State Seminoles 6-1 on Tuesday night. This victory was an attention getter. It got the attention of Florida fans who for the first time witnessed baseball in the Kevin O’Sullivan Era. It got the attention of coaches in the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference. It got the attention of the baseball writers and voters, who will keep a keen eye on Oxford, Mississippi to see how the Gators fare against an outstanding eighth ranked Ole Miss squad.

But, wasn’t this was just another heated in-state rivalry and anybody can win those ballgames? Sure, but it’s how Florida (15-3) won this game over Florida State (16-2). And it’s how they swept Auburn last weekend that has been so impressive and will peak the curiosity of the baseball writers.

Outstanding defense? Check. An improving offense? Check.  Aggressive base running? Check.  And then there’s the big surprise.

Solid starting pitching.

Over the past five games, Florida starters Stephen Locke (twice), Billy Bullock, Patrick Keating, and Tommy Toledo have pitched 28.2 innings and allowed just three earned runs. That’s an ERA of just 0.96.

There is no typo here, ladies and gentlemen. And I’m not coming off a St. Patrick’s Day hangover either.  Want some more? Well, during that same stretch the Florida starters allowed 22 hits and walked just nine batters, while striking out thirteen. 

Locke (2-0, 3.93) picked up Tuesday night’s win and after struggling early in the season has really put together some impressive work. In his last two mid-week starts (Florida Gulf Coast and Florida State) the southpaw has pitched 11.1 innings and allowed one earned run, while walking just two and fanning five.  Locke’s ERA in his past two starts is .081.

Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan was rightfully concerned about his pitching staff as the season got underway. The job that he has done with this group is incredible. And you don’t even have to ask the Seminoles. Florida State head coach Mike Martin’s club came in swinging the big bats- averaging .355.

They left McKethan Stadium hitting .218 on the night.  The Seminoles top four batters in the lineup — Tyler Holt (0-3), Jason Stidham (0-4), Buster Posey (1-4), and Tony Delmonico (0-4) combined to hit a pathetic 1-for-15 (.066).

And while the Gators relievers weren’t spectacular they could rely on a stellar defense to strand nine Seminoles base runners over a three inning stretch in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings. Five of those base runners were courtesy of walks by the Florida staff, which is an area they’ll have to clean- up before tripping to The Magnolia State for another Southeastern Conference showdown. 

Offensively, the Gators put their leadoff runner on base in five of their eight innings at the plate. A renewed aggressive approach has resulted in additional pressure on the defense and fewer strikeouts. Florida struck out 12 times last Friday night against Auburn pitchers Grant Dayton and Michael Hurst. O’Sullivan wasn’t pleased and vowed they’d work on improving in that area. They did. On Saturday and Sunday they were more assertive and pounded out 26 hits compared to fanning just eight times. Five Florida State pitchers combined to strike out five Florida batters.

Things are looking up. Florida plays an exciting brand of college baseball, utilizing their speed offensively and defensively to a distinct advantage. It denied Florida State head coach Mike Martin his 1,501st victory. Improved pitching has been the theme of late for this ball club. Don’t look now, but they might soon find themselves ranked. Will the crowds continue to follow suit and help Pack the Mac?