ATHENS, Ga. — Junior Preston Tucker (Tampa, Fla.) belted a go-ahead two-run homer in the seventh and blasted a grand slam in the eighth to propel No. 4 Florida (28-9/11-4 SEC) to a 14-7 victory over Georgia (19-18/9-6 SEC) in the rubber match of the weekend set at Foley Field on Sunday afternoon. 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 to collect their fifth-straight series triumph over the Bulldogs.
UF’s seventh-consecutive SEC road series success puts head coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s club one game behind No. 3 South Carolina (28-7/12-3 SEC) in the league standings and tied with No. 1 Vanderbilt (32-5/11-4 SEC) for second place both overall and in the Eastern Division. UF’s 11-4 (.733) record at the mid-point of the 30-game conference schedule is its best since the 1998 squad was 11-3 (.786) through five series.
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. Sophomores Brian Johnson (Cocoa Beach, Fla.) (3-for-4, three RBI, two-run homer), Austin Maddox (Jacksonville, Fla.) (3-for-4, two runs) and Mike Zunino (Cape Coral, Fla.) (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 (Longwood, Fla.) (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.
The Gators came out of the gates with four runs in the first inning against redshirt junior Craig Gullickson on three walks, two hits, two wild pitches and a passed ball. Senior Bryson Smith (Watkinsville, Ga.) led off with a single into right field and sophomore Nolan Fontana (Winter Garden, Fla.) (1-for-3, two runs) followed with a four-pitch walk. Gullickson uncorked a wild pitch that moved Smith and Fontana into scoring position and then issued a free pass to Zunino that filled the sacks. Another wild pitch brought across Smith with the initial run and a passed ball by junior catcher Joey Delmonico on ball four to Tucker enabled Fontana to score. Maddox poked an RBI single up the middle to plate Zunino and Johnson delivered his first sacrifice fly of the year into center field to drive in Tucker for a 4-0 lead.
Fontana and Zunino had back-to-back singles with one down in the second and a fielder’s choice by Tucker left runners on the corners with two down. Gullickson had Maddox fly out to the wall in right field, where junior Peter Verdin made a leaping catch.
Georgia got on the board in the home part of the inning against freshman Karsten Whitson (Chipley, Fla.) on a one-out infield single by junior Jonathan Hester (2-for-5) that scored junior Zach Cone (2-for-5, two RBI). Cone had opened the frame with a triple to straightaway center field.
Johnson boosted his hitting streak to 10 games with a leadoff single in the third, ending the afternoon for Gullickson (2.0 IP, 5 H, 4 R). Junior Chase Hawkins had senior Josh Adams (Jacksonville, Fla.) (2-for-5) hit into a 4-6-3 double play and struck out junior Daniel Pigott (Ormond Beach, Fla.).
In the third, Whitson permitted consecutive one-out walks to junior Levi Hyams and sophomore Curt Powell (2-for-3) and worked out of the jam by fanning sophomore Kyle Farmer (2-for-5) and having Cone ground out.
After Whitson set down the Bulldogs in order in the fourth, Johnson cranked a two-out, two-run homer in the fifth to expand UF’s lead to 6-1. Hawkins recorded the first two outs before Maddox notched his second hit of the game with a bullet up the middle. Johnson followed with his second homer of the season, first since March 22 against Winthrop, with a round-tripper to right center.
The Bulldogs answered in the bottom of the stanza with RBI doubles by Hyams and Cone to narrow the gap to 6-3. Whiston had retired six-straight hitters before Verdin (2-for-4, two runs) doubled to left field with one down and went to third on a wild pitch. Hyams connected a two-bagger to left on a full count to score Verdin and Powell had a bunt single for runners on the corners. Whitson jammed Farmer on an infield pop-up and then Cone rifled a two-out double to bring across Hyams. Whitson had sophomore Brett DeLoach fly out to deep center to keep the Gators ahead by three runs.
Redshirt sophomore reliever Earl Daniels took over for Hawkins (3.0 IP, 3 H, 2 R) prior to the sixth and junior Tyler Thompson (Tequesta, Fla.) greeted the hurler with a single. The righty had Smith bounce into a double play and Fontana ground out to first base.
Whitson departed after five full innings in which he gave up six hits and three runs, with five strikeouts and two walks. Georgia responded with four runs on five hits in the bottom of the sixth to seize a 7-6 advantage. Junior Alex Panteliodis (Tampa, Fla.) surrendered a leadoff double by Hester into left field and a single to freshman Brandon Stephens for runners on the corners. Redshirt sophomore Kevin Ruiz (3-for-3) delivered a pinch-hit RBI single into right field that brought UGA within 6-4 and Verdin bunted for a single to load the bases with none out and prompt another pitching change. Sophomore Steven Rodriguez (Miami, Fla.) came in for Panteliodis (4 H, 4 R) and struck out Hyams but then walked Powell to bring in Stephens with the fifth run. An infield single by Farmer tied the game at 6-6 and Larson was called on to replace Rodriguez (0.1 IP, 1 H, 1 K, 1 BB). The right-hander induced a ground ball by Cone which forced Farmer at second but allowed Verdin to score the go-ahead run for a 7-6 margin.
Florida regained the lead in the seventh on a two-run jack by Tucker. After Zunino opened the frame with a base-hit into left, Daniels (1.0 IP, 2 H, 1 R) was replaced by sophomore Blake Dieterich (1-2). Tucker cranked the lefty’s initial offering out of the yard in right center to move the Gators back in front. It was his sixth big fly of the campaign and the third of his career against Georgia.
Larson picked up the first two outs in the home part of the inning before Ruiz launched a double into right center. The righty stranded the runner by having Verdin fly out to center field.
Tucker blasted a grand slam with two down in the eighth and Adams added an RBI single to give the Gators a 13-7 lead. Pigott began the inning with a base-hit up the middle and Thompson popped up a bunt attempt before the Bulldogs summoned junior Tyler Maloof from the bullpen to replace Dieterich (1.1 IP, 3 H, 2 R). The nation’s leader in saves had Smith fly out and Pigott moved into scoring position with his fifth stolen base. Fontana drew his second walk of the game and Zunino was hit by a pitch to load the bases for Tucker. The slugger hammered a 1-1 pitch from Maloof to right field for his third career grand slam and first multiple-homer effort of the season. After Maddox walked, sophomore Patrick Boling came in for Maloof (0.1 IP, 1 H, 4 R) and gave up a single into left field by Johnson. Moments later, Adams boosted Florida’s lead to six runs with a base-knock into center that scored Maddox.
Thompson started the ninth with a walk, stole second and went to third on a wild pitch by junior Cecil Tanner. After senior John Herman had Smith ground out, Fontana lofted a sacrifice fly into left field to bring home Thompson for a 14-7 score. UF held a 17-16 edge in hits, as all nine starters chipped in with at least one.
The Gators will conclude their eight-game road trip on Wednesday night in Orlando against UCF (22-14/4-8 C-USA) at 6:30 p.m. The contest will be carried on the Bright House Sports Network and be aired in Gainesville on WLUF-TV, Channel 6 on the Cox Communications’ cable system. The Knights seized a 4-3 victory at McKethan Stadium on April 5.