Johnson to start for UF vs. Georgia in SEC tournament

Third-seeded Florida (43-15) will face fifth-seeded Georgia (30-29) on Saturday afternoon in the semifinals of the 2011 SEC Tournament. The contest will be televised in Gainesville and Ocala on Sun Sports (Channels 48/1048 on the Cox Communications’ cable system) and can be heard on WRUF SportsRadio 850. The Gators and Bulldogs will play 30 minutes following the completion of the 10:30 a.m. ET matchup between No. 4 seed Vanderbilt (46-9) and No. 2 seed Arkansas (38-19).

The Gators are 2-0 in the double-elimination event after defeating sixth-seeded Mississippi State (7-5) on Wednesday and seventh-seeded Alabama (6-0) on Thursday. The Bulldogs fell to fourth-seeded Vanderbilt (10-0) before winning consecutive elimination games against eighth-seeded Auburn, 3-2, and top-seeded South Carolina, 4-2. Georgia will need to defeat UF twice and Arkansas will need to beat the Commodores twice to reach Sunday’s title tilt.

Sophomore left-hander Brian Johnson (8-3, 3.58) will draw the start against UGA and will oppose sophomore righty Earl Daniels (0-0, 5.87). In 78 innings this season, Johnson has totaled 68 strikeouts, issued 15 walks and limited opponents to a .246 batting average.

Florida claimed its first two SEC Tournament outings for the first time since 2005, when it edged Arkansas, 9-8, and then handled Ole Miss, 10-7. However, the Rebels rebounded to oust the Gators with a pair of victories on Saturday that year, 14-1 (7 inn.) and 4-2. UF is now 5-6 (.455) in four SEC Tourney appearances under Kevin O’Sullivan.

Florida has not collected three wins in Hoover since 2002, when it finished 3-2 (W, L, W, W, L). In addition, the Orange and Blue has not reached the final round since 2000, when it posted victories in its first three contests before succumbing to LSU, 9-6.

Saturday’s match-up will mark the 11th time that Florida has met Georgia in the SEC Tourney. The Bulldogs have emerged victorious in six of the previous 10 encounters and the squads will be meeting for the first time since May 28, 2004, when the Gators notched a 7-0 triumph in a do-or-die contest.

In the teams’ regular-season series, Florida improved to 11-4 at the mid-point of SEC play by taking two of three outings at Georgia over the weekend of April 15-17. The Gators captured the opener, 5-4, before the Bulldogs countered with a 7-2 victory on Saturday. In an offensive slugfest, UF closed the weekend with a 14-7 triumph for their fifth-straight series triumph over Georgia.

Junior Preston Tucker belted a go-ahead two-run homer in the seventh and blasted a grand slam in the eighth to propel the Gators to a 14-7 win in Sunday’s rubber match. After the Bulldogs rallied from a 6-1 deficit with two runs in the fifth and four in the sixth to take a 7-6 lead, the Gators responded with eight unanswered runs in their final three at bats. Tucker (2-for-5) had his first multiple-homer outing of the campaign and set season highs with six RBI and three runs to pace a 17-hit offensive attack against eight Bulldog pitchers. Johnson (3-for-4, three RBI, two-run homer), Austin Maddox (3-for-4, two runs) and Mike Zunino (3-for-4, three runs) combined with Tucker for an 11-for-17 (.647), 10-RBI, nine-run performance by Florida’s third through sixth hitters in the lineup. Junior Greg Larson (1-1) scattered five hits over 3.2 scoreless innings, matching his longest relief stint of the season, to notch his first win since May 14, 2010, against UGA.

On Saturday, the Bulldogs snapped a 1-1 tie with a six-run eighth inning to square the weekend series, 7-2. Junior right-hander Michael Palazzone allowed one run on six hits and had six strikeouts over eight innings to register the victory, sophomore Kyle Farmer (2-for-4) had the go-ahead RBI double and sophomore Brett DeLoach (3-for-4, four RBI) had a three-run triple as Georgia ended a nine-game losing skid to the Gators dating back to a 7-4 decision on April 25, 2008. With UGA holding a 1-0 lead, senior Bryson Smith (2-for-4) tied the game in the eighth with a one-out homer into the trees overlooking left field. It was his first round-tripper of the season and first since April 24, 2010, versus Arkansas. Johnson was locked in a pitcher’s duel with Palazzone and yielded one run on six hits with four K over six innings. Johnson’s run of 9.1-consecutive scoreless innings ended on an RBI grounder by DeLoach in the fourth. Junior Anthony DeSclafani (4-2) was tagged with the loss after giving up three hits and four runs over 1.1 innings. Senior Josh Adams was a perfect 3-for-3 and had a double that narrowly missed being the game-tying homer in the seventh.

Sophomore Steven Rodriguez struck out junior Levi Hyams with the tying run aboard to end the game as the Gators claimed the opener, 5-4. The victory was the 150th of O’Sullivan’s career. The hosts had pulled within a run in their final at bat on a two-out RBI single by junior Peter Verdin before Rodriguez was called upon in relief of Maddox (1.2 IP, 2 H, 1 R). The southpaw’s punch-out resulted in his second save and preserved the win for sophomore Hudson Randall. The Gators banged out 13 hits and were led offensively by Maddox (3-for-4, two RBI), sophomore Nolan Fontana 2-for-5), Tucker (2-for-4) and junior Daniel Pigott (2-for-3). UF batted .368 (39-for-106) with four homers during the series.

On Thursday afternoon, Randall tossed eight scoreless innings, Pigott was 4-for-4 and scored three runs and Smith was 4-for-5 and tallied three RBI to lead the third-seeded Gators past seventh-seeded Alabama, 6-0, in the first winner’s bracket game.

Randall (9-3) allowed four singles over eight strong innings and benefitted from the Gator defense matching its season high with three double plays. He improved his career mark to 3-0 against Alabama and has not allowed any runs to the Tide in 21.1 innings. Sophomore Steven Rodriguez yielded a leadoff single and recorded the first out of the ninth before DeSclafani set down both hitters he faced to secure UF’s 10th shutout of the season, matching the school record established in 1970.

The Gators plated a pair of runs in the first inning on an RBI grounder by Tucker and a sacrifice fly by Adams and tacked on two more runs in the second on an RBI single by Smith and a sacrifice fly by Fontana. Of Florida’s 11 hits, five went for extra-bases (four doubles and a triple).

Notes From Thursday

*The Gators registered their first shutout in the SEC Tourney since Connor Falkenbach delivered a three-hit gem in a 7-0 win over Georgia on May 28, 2004.

*Randall’s eight innings of work was his longest stint since registering back-to-back complete games against South Carolina (March 26) and Tennessee (April 1).

*Randall picked up his first win since April 29 vs. Ole Miss, ending a stretch of two losses and a no-decision.

*Pigott matched his career-best total of four hits for the third time, most recently against FAU on Feb. 22, 2011, and tied his career-high of three runs scored.

*Pigott was the first UF player with a triple in Hoover since Jonathan Tucker had a three-bagger against LSU on May 26, 2004.

*The Gators were 3-for-3 on stolen-base attempts, two by Pigott and one by Smith. Pigott leads the Gators with 11 stolen bases in 14 attempts.

*Smith is now 4-for-9 (.444) over the two games at Regions Park and Adams is 3-for-7 (.429).

*Smith delivered a career-best in hits (four) and doubles (two) and equaled his single-game high of three RBI. He was the first Florida player with a couple of doubles in a contest at the SEC event since Johnson (vs. LSU, 5/26/10).

*UF’s pitching staff had four strikeouts and issued one walk.

Gator Bytes

*Coach O’Sullivan is 10-2 (.833) against Georgia, 5-1 (.833) in Gainesville and 5-1 (.833) in Athens.

*The Gators have claimed their last five series with UGA: 2007 (3-0), 2008 (2-1), 2009 (3-0), 2010 (3-0) and 2011 (2-1).

*Six different Florida players have double-digit totals in two-baggers: Zunino (19), Pigott (18), Tucker (17), Fontana (12), Adams (10) and Johnson (10).

*UF is 29-6 (.829) at home, 11-7 (.611) on an opponent’s home field and 3-2 (.600) at neutral sites this season.

*In nine career games against the Bulldogs, Tucker is 14-for-40 (.350) with 14 RBI, 10 runs and four homers, while Smith is 6-for-14 (.429) in four games.