It took the Florida Gators (36-10, 16-5 SEC) a little time to wake up from Friday night’s Game Two nightmare, but once they did, the Auburn Tigers (31-14, 10-11 SEC) stood no chance.
Pitching took the step it needed to and the offense came back to life as the Gators defeated the Tigers 12-3 and kept their weekend series winning streak intact.
Freshman pitcher Jack Leftwich earned his first weekend start over the struggling Tyler Dyson, but it looked like the change would not end those struggles early on.
Whether it was nerves or something else, he could not find his control to start the game. He hit the very first batter he faced and walked the next. Auburn’s cleanup hitter Edouard Julien had not mercy on the youngster in a tough situation, blasting a home run to right center to put Florida down 3-0.
It felt like déjà vu, and like it may be another long day for the Gators.
That feeling didn’t last too long.
Leftwich came back to strike two batters out and get out of the inning. From there, he started settling in, striking out two more in the third and getting three quick groundouts in the fourth.
Meanwhile, Florida’s offense was showing some signs of life, but had leadoff singles erased by double plays in both the second and third innings.
There was no erasing what would follow.
Auburn wanted nothing to do with Jonathan India from the very beginning, as he drew his second walk of the game to start the fourth inning. Wil Dalton then poked what appeared to be a routine fly ball to right center, but both outfielders lost it in the sun, giving the Gators runners on first and second with no outs.
JJ Schwarz lined a single to right field, and the mishaps continued for the Tigers’ defense as the right fielder could not come up with the ball and the error allowed India to cross the plate for Florida’s first run.
A walk loaded the bases and starting pitcher Andrew Mitchell’s day came to an abrupt close. Nick Horvath started a field day on new pitcher Davis Daniel, scorching a bases clearing double to left center and giving the Gators a 4-3 lead.
Back-to-back singles from Deacon Liput and Nelson Maldonado tacked on a couple more runs. Florida batted around the order and came out of the fourth inning up 6-3.
The bloodbath would not end there. The Gators continued to add to the lead, scoring in each of the following innings while Leftwich found his groove and pressed cruise control.
“When somebody starts hitting and it goes top to bottom or you have a big inning or two, it definitely is contagious,” Deacon Liput said. “It helps you build some confidence as a unit.”
Florida struggled with sidewinder Calvin Coker when he first entered the game, but he clipped Brady Smith with two outs in the fifth, Smith stole second and Blake Reese grounded a base hit into right field to score him.
India led off the sixth with his fourth consecutive walk. Two quick outs followed, and Coker was keeping a close eye on India at first base, but not close enough to keep him from stealing second just before Austin Langworthy drove an RBI single to left field, making it 8-3.
Leftwich got a pair of outs in the seventh inning before head coach Kevin O’Sullivan made the call to end his day and let some more pitchers get some work in with the comfortable lead. Despite his difficult start, the crowd gave him a standing ovation for maintaining his focus and putting up goose eggs in five straight innings.
He struck out seven and gave up just four hits in 6.2 innings.
“It says a lot about his maturity, his concentration level,” O’Sullivan said. “He didn’t get rattled. With young pitchers, you can easily see them kind of come unglued there, but he stayed the course and kept putting up zeros.”
O’Sullivan sent Tyler Dyson out there in hopes of getting his confidence up, but the opposite may have actually happened. Dyson drilled a batter with his very first pitch, then gave up a hard hit down the left field line to put runners at first and second with two outs.
His leash was not very long on Saturday as O’Sullivan quickly pulled him and sent Jordan Butler to the mound to get out of it.
In the bottom of the inning, Keenan Bell pinch hit for Smith and drew a one-out walk. Deacon Liput came up to the plate with Bell still on the bases and two outs, and he crushed his second homer of the weekend over the scoreboard in right field.
Butler stayed in and got out of the eighth unscathed.
The bottom of the inning took a scary turn when India took a fastball to the hand and came out of the game writhing in pain. Fortunately for Florida, O’Sullivan said after the game that India told him he was fine.
With India out, Shane Shifflett pinch hit for Dalton so that he could take over at third base. He came through with an infield single, Schwarz loaded the bases with a base hit through the left side and Langworthy hit a sacrifice fly to left field to score Andrew Baker, who came in to run for India.
The runners advanced to second and third on a Horvath ground out and Bell drove Shifflett in on a line drive to right field to conclude Florida’s 12-run day.
All that was left to do was get three more outs, and O’Sullivan opted to send closer Michael Byrne out to do just that, despite the nine-run lead.
After a poor performance on Friday, the Gators had a great game in the stats offensively, getting 13 hits, led by a 3-for-5 day from Horvath and a 2-for-3 day with two walks from Liput.
Horvath finished the weekend with a .500 average at the plate, and has really come on for Florida this season. That is no surprise to his teammates, though.
“He’s a much better offensive player, and I think it’s from all the extra effort that he puts in,” Liput said. “He’s always the first in the cage, last one to leave kind of guy. He’s matured a lot and he’s really been a leader of this team.”
The Gators now have some momentum back and will try to ride that into a big SEC series at Texas A&M next weekend.