Coming off their toughest loss of the season, the unranked Georgia Bulldogs bounced back with their best game of the season to upset top-ranked Florida 5-3 at McKethan Stadium on Saturday.
It’s been a battle for veteran Georgia coach David Perno to get the Bulldogs back up after tough defeats and none were tougher than Friday’s 3-2 loss in 16 innings.
After the nearly five-hour marathon that ended on the game’s only error a minute after midnight, the 11th-year coach spoke to his team about showing resiliency.
“Every tough loss we’ve had this year we’ve came out the next day and just hadn’t played well,” Perno said. “I said, ‘All I’m looking for is for us to play close to our identity and whatever happens, happens.’
“I’m probably as proud of them tonight as I’ve ever been with this team. That was a tough, tough, tough loss, the way we came back was great.”
Perno pointed out how well Florida (30-9 overall, 10-7 in Southeastern Conference play) played, which made him even prouder of his up-and-down Georgia (24-16, 8-9) team. Gators starter Brian Johnson allowed four runs on seven hits in seven innings.
“Florida played really good tonight,” Perno said. “Johnson settled in and did a great job and they made some great plays. We were fortunate.”
Georgia was fortunate its starting pitcher, Michael Palazzone, was able to rebound from one of the worst outings of his career. After pitching a complete game to beat Ole Miss 6-3 on April 13, Palazzone was rolled out on Tuesday to get in an inning of work.
It turned out to be disastrous. He was hammered for five runs on four hits in a 5-4 loss against sub-.500 Furman.
Turns out Palazzone was ill and Perno wondered if he had recovered after walking Florida’s Mike Zunino and giving up a two-run homer to Preston Tucker in Saturday’s first inning.
“I started questioning (if he was still) under the weather after that first inning,” Perno said. “He was throwing the ball well — He just lost Zunino and then Tucker does what he does and, boy, he crushed it. But after that, Michael was good.”
“After that inning (against Furman) and then when he gave up two more in the first inning (against Florida), I was like, ‘Holy cow, he’s got to turn it (around).’”
Palazzone won for only the second time in eight starts after shutting Florida down for the final four-plus innings. After allowing a solo homer to Daniel Piggott in the fourth, he retired 13 of the next 14 batters in order, with only Tucker reaching base on a strike out/wild pitch.
That’s quite a feat, especially against an offense such as Florida’s.
“They’ve got as good of a lineup as I have seen,” Perno said. “They hurt you with their power. They’ve got guys who are really good with two strikes and are tough to punch out. They hit the ball on the ground and keep the pressure on.
“Then you run in the middle of that lineup, and they can hit anything out of the yard — And we do all we can to hit it to the warning track.”
It wasn’t as if the Gators were shut down for four innings by an awful pitcher. Palazzone’s 1-5 record and 5.81 Earned Run Average entering Saturday were deceiving. He was one of the best pitchers in the SEC a year ago with seven wins vs. ranked opponents — including beating then-No. 4 Florida — to go along with a 10-5 record and 3.14 ERA.
At the start of this season, the senior right-hander had a nerve issue “flare up” that affected his command. He didn’t have much feeling in his index finger, Perno said.
To beat Florida again Sunday, Georgia will need another gutsy performance from its pitcher. The Bulldogs will go with 6-foot-6 right-hander Luke Crumley, a true freshman making his first career start.
“(Sunday) is going to be tricky,” Perno said. “(Crumley’s) got good stuff, but he hasn’t faced a lineup quite like Florida has.
“They’ve got a great team and are well-coached, so we’ll have our work cut out for us trying to win this series.”
Crumley’s first pitch is scheduled for 3:03 p.m.