Johnson sparks Gators to series win against Rebels

Ordinary pitchers do not get their uniforms dirty.

Brian Johnson showed Saturday night why he is no ordinary pitcher.

The Gators’ starting lefty from Cocoa Beach set the tone for the game early in the second inning when he belted a sizzler down the right field line and chugged around the bases before diving headfirst into third for the game’s first hit.

While the hit may have cost the team a few extra wash cycles in the locker room, Johnson’s triple ignited a dominant performance from him in the batter’s box and on the mound as the Gators (33-10, 16-4 SEC) cruised to an 8-1 win over the Mississippi Rebels (24-19, 9-11 SEC).

Florida catcher Mike Zunino marveled over Johnson’s ability to churn out great performances offensively, especially when starting the game on the mound.

“I think [by getting chances to hit] he can take his mind off pitching for a little bit and just focus on having a little fun at the plate,” Zunino said. “It’s amazing he can do both.”

Although recording his second triple of the season, Johnson would certainly not be confused with Sonic the Hedgehog. Zunino said Johnson gave his teammates both inspiration and heckling material as he rumbled around the bases with his 6’3,’’ 225-pound frame.

“We always do [heckle him], but he gives effort any time he can and tonight he sniffed the triple and just started booking it around second,” Zunino said. “He gets everyone excited and we all know Brian can hit. He can go off any night, and for him to do that is really no surprise for us.”

The triple sparked a complete performance from Johnson in which he went 6.2 innings and surrendered zero runs on the mound to improve to 7-1 and a 2.26 ERA.

Johnson also gave a packed McKethan Stadium crowd of more than 4,300 a chance to shout, “Sit down!” nine times to disgruntled Mississippi hitters as he matched his career high in strikeouts.

After loading the bases by surrendering consecutive hits and walking a batter on four pitches in the third inning, Johnson escaped with no earned runs and never looked back. For the rest of his outing, Johnson gave up only two hits and walked none, saying that he found a groove by keeping Mississippi batters guessing.

“I think I just kept them off balance for awhile,” Johnson said. “I really pounded low and away and had both sides of the plate working. The umpire was giving me the low strikes, so you might as well keep it there.”

Despite the two-way dominance from Johnson, there were other studs for the Gators that hammered away at Mississippi starter David Goforth (L, 3-6, 4.96 ERA) and reliever Mike Mayers (1-0, 5.47 ERA).

Zunino and third baseman Jeff Moyer both smacked out homers and tore up the batter’s box to a combined 4-for-8, three runs and four RBIs.

Moyer’s homerun came as a solo shot in the sixth to put the Gators ahead 7-0.

“He threw me a fastball right down the middle,” Moyer said. “It was a 1-0 pitch and I was sitting dead-red and he threw it right where I wanted it, so I put a good swing on it. You don’t see those too often, but when you get them you got to hit them.”

The win gives the Gators a five-game winning streak since their loss to UCF on April 20, and coach Kevin O’Sullivan said the team is playing with renewed confidence.

“I think they are playing with a little bounce, and I think they are playing with a little fun,” O’Sullivan said. “Getting a lot of guys in there contributing is helping us out a lot. I knew we were going to start swinging the bats better as the season went on and we are seeing the ball well right now.”

The win also keeps Florida deadlocked for first in the SEC with South Carolina and Vanderbilt, who both won on Saturday as well. With the series against Mississippi already locked up, the Gators will look to complete their second consecutive weekend sweep tomorrow at 1 p.m. at McKethan Stadium. Florida freshman righty Karsten Whitson (5-0, 2.25) will oppose Mississippi junior left-hander Austin Wright (4-3, 4.36) in tomorrow’s series finale.

In such a heated race for the conference crown, the players expressed the importance of not looking ahead or adding pressure.

“You have to take it game-by-game and pitch-by-pitch,” Moyer said. “You have to come out and do your job everyday and the rest will take care of itself.