Stephen Locke doesn’t usually look like an ace at the beginning of the game, but once the middle innings come around, he is usually locked in.
Thursday night at McKethan Stadium, Locke was locked in on the night the No. 12 Florida Gators locked up the Southeastern Conference East Division crown. While the senior left-hander was giving the Gators a solid performance for 7.1 innings, word came from Columbia, S.C., that South Carolina had given the Gators the title with its 7-2 victory over second-place Georgia.
Second-year coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s Gators (37-17, 18-10 SEC East) then finished off a 10-3 victory over Kentucky in a game delayed 90 minutes by rain. In addition to the East Division title, the Gators are assured at least the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament next week at Regions Park in Hoover, Ala. Florida remains a game behind West Division leader Louisiana State in the race for the top seed with two games to go.
Locke, the senior left-hander, moved to 4-1 by allowing three runs on eight hits with four strikeouts against the Wildcats (27-25, 11-17 SEC East). It was just the kind of performance the Gators needed.
“Usually getting started is a big deal for me,” Locke said.
Even when Locke did struggle, it was only for a brief time. He gave up back-to-back hits to start the game, but after a ground out to second base moved the runners to second and third, Gunner Glad hit a line drive right at senior third baseman Brandon McArthur, who threw to second to double off the runner and end the threat. McArthur moved to sixth on the all-time list for games started.
“That was huge,” Locke said. “They got a couple cheap hits to start off the game, and they always say if you keep pounding the zone, things will go your way. The kid smoked the ball, but it happened to be right at Brandon.”
Locke gave up a leadoff single in the second inning to Chris Wade, who scored on a two-out home run to Marcus Nidiffer. After the home run, Locke allowed only three of 18 batters to reach base before he ran into trouble in the eighth inning. The Wildcats loaded the bases with no outs but Locke got an out with a sacrifice fly and was relieved by redshirt freshman Justin Poovey. The right-handed Poovey got Glad to ground into a double play to end another threat.
“I really liked the way Stephen bounced back today (after tough starts at Georgia and LSU),” O’Sullivan said. “He pitched right into the eighth. We wanted to keep him around 100 pitches.”
The start was Locke’s 13th career quality start, which is awarded when a pitchers goes at least six innings while allowing no more than three runs.
For all of the Gators, winning the division is only the first goal of many they hope to accomplish.
“That’s not in the back (of our minds), it’s right there,” said senior Avery Barnes, who went 4-for-5 and scored three runs. “We had a little team meeting about it after the game. It’s something that the guys are proud of. This being my last year, we haven’t had a season like this since I’ve been here and it just means a lot to a lot of the guys in our program and the fans as well. It’s been a rough couple of years and for us to do something like this, especially in my senior year, means a lot.”
“Avery is one of those guys everybody loves,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s always got a good attitude. He plays with reckless abandon, something you try to get all your players to do, but he seems to do it. He’s our spark plug. Ever since we put him at the top of the order again, he’s really made our offense go.”
The Florida offense got going with a run in each of the first two innings. In the first inning, Barnes scored from third base on a wild pitch. He scored when Nidiffer, the Kentucky catcher, appealed to the first base umpire to see if a Florida player swung and was late to recover the ball in the dirt.
“Especially with two outs, (third base coach) Craig (Bell) wants us to be real aggressive with dirt balls,” Barnes said. “Any chance we can sneak a run is big because you never know what one run will mean in a game. When it hit the dirt, I just tried to get a good jump.”
Senior catcher Teddy Foster, Locke’s personal catcher, got the Gators their second run with a solo home run in the second inning.
The Gators broke the game open in the fifth inning off losing pitcher James Paxton (5-3). Barnes beat out a ground ball to first for a hit. After a wild pitch moved Barnes to second, Jonathan Pigott singled to center field to move Barnes to third. Preston Tucker reached on a fielder’s choice that scored the gambling Barnes, who beat a throw home. With Pigott on second and Tucker on first, the Gators executed a double steal which brought the Kentucky infield in. Josh Adams solved that problem by lining a single up the middle to score Pigott and Tucker for a 5-2 Florida lead.
“I’m finally coming around a little bit,” said Adams, who went 3-for-5 with 4 RBI. “I’m getting used to seeing curve balls in fastball counts. I’m looking for a pitch I can drive and get the runs in. I’m not trying to do too much. I put a good swing on it.”
Florida patted the lead in the sixth which began with a leadoff single by Daniel Pigott. Mike Mooney followed with a single to left field, moving Pigott to second. Barnes dropped down an attempted sacrifice bunt but beat the throw to first base for a hit. After Jonathan Pigott struck out looking on a fastball inside, Tucker was hit in the back with a fastball, scoring Daniel Pigott from third. Adams followed with a single to left field that got under the left fielder’s glove, allowing Adams to reach third base and score three runs. Matt den Dekker then hit a sacrifice fly to right field to score Adams and bump the Florida lead to 10-2.
Lately, when the Gators get the leadoff batter on base, they usually end up scoring that inning. Adams doesn’t see that as an accident.
“That’s how baseball is,” Adams said. “If you’re going bad, you can go really bad. But if you’re going good, everyone decides to hop on board and start hitting the baseball.”
Poovey closed the game by going 1.2 innings, allowing only one hit. He also induced two double plays. The bullpen is the current strength of the Florida team, but O’Sullivan believes that to be the case because of the lesser-known pitchers that have been producing.
“Everybody talks about (Billy) Bullock at the end of the game and (Greg) Larson, but the two guys that are key for me are (Patrick) Keating and Poovey,” O’Sullivan said. “Even though Poovey didn’t have a great start against FGCU, he threw strikes again today. You need those guys down the stretch. It’s not the 1,2,3, but it’s the 7,8,9 guys (in the bullpen).”
The series resumes Friday night at 6:30 p.m. Florida will start freshman right-hander Anthony DeSclafani (5-2, 3.81 ERA) against Kentucky senior left-hander Chris Rusin (6-4, 3.96 ERA).
SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE BASEBALL
EAST SEC Pct. GB All Pct.
x-Florida 18-10 .643 — 37-17 .685
Georgia 15-13 .536 3.0 35-18 .660
South Carolina 15-13 .536 3.0 35-19 .648
Vanderbilt 12-15 .444 5.5 31-22 .585
Kentucky 11-17 .393 7.0 27-25 .519
Tennessee 9-19 .321 9.0 24-29 .453
WEST SEC Pct. GB All Pct.
Louisiana State 19-9 .679 — 40-14 .741
Mississippi 18-10 .643 1.0 38-15 .717
Alabama 17-10 .630 1.5 36-16 .692
Arkansas 14-13 .519 4.5 32-18 .640
Auburn 10-18 .357 9.0 30-24 .556
Mississippi State 8-19 .296 10.5 24-28 .462
x-clinched division title
Thursday, May 14
Florida 10, Kentucky 3
South Carolina 7, Georgia 2
Louisiana State 5, Mississippi State 4
Auburn 3, Alabama 2 (10)
Tennessee 8, Vanderbilt 6
Mississippi 7, Arkansas 5
Friday, May 15
Kentucky (LHP Chris Rusin 6-4, 3.96 ERA) at Florida (RHP Anthony DeScalfani 5-2, 3.81 ERA), 6:30 p.m.
Georgia (LHP Alex McRee 4-2, 4.35 ERA) at South Carolina (LHP Nolan Belcher 3-3, 5.48 ERA), 7 p.m.
Tennessee (TBA) at Vanderbilt (LHP Mike Minor 5-4, 3.72 ERA), 7 p.m.
Alabama (LHP Del Howell 5-2, 5.94 ERA) at Auburn (LHP Grant Dayton 2-6, 6.10 ERA), 7 p.m.
Louisiana State (RHP Louis Coleman 10-2, 2.45 ERA) at Mississippi State (LHP Nick Routt 5-3, 3.89 ERA), 7:30 p.m.
Mississippi (LHP Brett Bukvich 8-2, 4.31 ERA) at Arkansas (RHP Brett Eibner 4-4, 4.25 ERA), 7:35 p.m.
Saturday, May 16
Kentucky (RHP Alex Meyer 1-4, 5.27 ERA) at Florida (TBA), 4 p.m.
Georgia (RHP Justin Grimm 2-3, 4.36 ERA) at South Carolina (RHP Blake Cooper 7-4, 4.74 ERA), 1 p.m.
Tennessee (TBA) at Vanderbilt (RHP Drew Hayes 4-3, 5.72 ERA), 1 p.m.
Louisiana State (RHP Austin Ross 5-6, 5.09 ERA) at Mississippi State (TBA), 3 p.m.
Mississippi (RHP Phillip Irwin 6-3, 3.76 ERA) at Arkansas (RHP Justin Wells 2-0, 3.43 ERA), 3 p.m.
Alabama (LHP Adam Morgan 3-1, 3.57 ERA) at Auburn (RHP Dexter Price 4-2, 5.40 ERA), 4 p.m.
At Regions Park, Hoover, Ala.
Wednesday, May 20
Game 1: No. 7 seed vs. No. 2 seed, 11 a.m. (CSS)
Game 2: No. 6 seed vs. No. 3 seed, 2:30 p.m. (CSS)
Game 3: No. 8 seed vs. No. 1 seed, 6 p.m. (CSS)
Game 4: No. 5 seed vs. No. 4 seed, 9:30 p.m. (CSS)
Thursday, May 21
Game 5: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 11 a.m. (CSS)
Game 6: Loser Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 2:30 p.m. (CSS)
Game 7: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 6 p.m. (CSS)
Game 8: Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4, 9:30 p.m. (CSS)
Friday, May 22
Game 9: Winner Game 5 vs. Loser Game 7, 4 p.m. (FSN)
Game 10: Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 8, 7:30 p.m. (FSN)
Saturday, May 23
Game 11: Winner Game 8 vs. Winner Game 9, 11 a.m. (FSN)
Game 12: Winner Game 7 vs. Winner Game 10, 2:30 p.m. (FSN)
Game 13: Winner Game 11 vs. Loser Game 11, 6 p.m. (Game 13 will be necessary if Winner of Game 9 also wins Game 11)
Game 14: Winner Game 12 vs. Loser Game 12, 9:30 p.m. (Game 14 will be necessary if winner of Game 10 also wins Game 12. If Game 13 is not necessary, Game 15 will start at 6 p.m.)
Sunday, May 24
Game 15: Winner Game 13 vs. Winner Game 14, 4 p.m. (FSN)
Note: If both bracket winners are undefeated, there will be no Game 13 and Game 14 and the championship game would be Game 13.
SEC TOURNAMENT SEEDINGS
As of Monday, May 11
1. Louisiana State-x
7. South Carolina-x
11. Mississippi State-y
x-clinched tournament berth
y-eliminated from tournament
REGIONALS (May 29-June 1)
Various campus sites
SUPER REGIONALS (June 5-8)
Various campus sites
COLLEGE WORLD SERIES (June 13-24)
At Omaha, Neb.