The Florida Gators realized what was at stake in Saturday’s Southeastern Conference baseball game at McKethan Stadium against Western Division leader Arkansas prior to the contest when head coach Kevin O’Sullivan and his staff reminded them that they had only lost back-to-back games once this season.
Message received, mission accomplished. No. 7 Florida scored six runs in the fourth inning and rode the right arm of freshman starter Hudson Randall to an 8-2 victory over the fourth-ranked Razorbacks to end the visitors’ 13-game winning streak. The victory improved the Gators to 27-11 overall and 11-6 in the SEC East.
“This was huge,” Randall said. “Our hitters are back now and our pitching is on top of its game again. I felt the pressure, but with our defense and the way I throw the sinker ball, all I have to do is just keep the ball down and get a lot of ground balls.”
Randall (4-3, 3.65 ERA) did just that. He went 5.2 innings, allowing six hits and two runs (both unearned) while striking out two batters and allowing only one walk. He was in command of his four pitches from the first inning on, throwing 60 strikes among his 91 pitches. The only time Randall was in trouble through the first five innings was in the fifth when he allowed a one-out double and a single. He recovered and got Collin Kuhn to hit into an inning-ending double play.
“Hudson gave us a really good start,” O’Sullivan said. “He had his changeup going to right-handers and left-handers. He didn’t have to go to his slider or breaking ball when he was behind in the count. He battled and made some big pitches.”
After losing the series-opener 8-3 to Arkansas (33-7, 13-4 SEC West) Friday night, Florida’s chance to win the series was on the shoulders of the freshman right-hander. O’Sullivan didn’t want the pressure to be too much, but he did want to freshman to know how important the game was.
“We all forget sometimes that a lot of these guys are freshmen,” O’Sullivan said. “You don’t want to put pressure on them because I’ve never had a pitcher that went to the mound and didn’t want to be successful. But, on the flip side, he’s got to know that he’s got to pitch well. There wasn’t a lot of talk today before the game.”
Randall let his pitching do his talking.
“I’ve been real pleased with the way he has pitched this year,” O’Sullivan added. “There have only been a couple outings when he has been hit. He’s been pretty consistent. To ask a guy to pitch against Arkansas when you’re down 0-1 (in the series), that’s a pretty big accomplishment.”
Randall was helped by two sliding catches by center fielder Matt den Dekker on the warning track in left center. The first came with two outs and no one on in the second inning, and the second catch came with one out and a runner on third in the third inning. Each catch was a sliding basket catch in front of the sign on the fence that memorializes the 1991 team that went to the College World Series.
“Off the bat I saw them well, so I thought I had a pretty good chance,” said den Dekker who believes he has a chance to catch every ball off the bat.
Randall’s pinpoint control in the first four innings was necessary to keep Florida in the game, but the offense broke out in the fourth innings with six runs to give Randall some breathing room.
Austin Maddox started the inning with a single to right field and moved to third when Brian Johnson doubled to right field. After den Dekker struck out, Mike Zunino ripped a two-run double off the wall in left.
“We tried to be more aggressive,” Zunino said. “We squared some balls up and tried to keep the ball out of the air.”
After Tyler Thompson popped out, Josh Adams singled and scored Zunino before Nolan Fontana singled to center, moving Adams to third.
Arkansas then pulled starting pitcher Brett Eibner and brought in left-hander Geoffrey Davenport, and the Gators had something waiting for him. The sophomore’s first pitch was belted over the fence in left for a three-run home run by Bryson Smith, giving the Gators a 7-0 lead after the fourth inning.
“I didn’t really say a whole lot to him, just that the guy was around the plate and to be aggressive,” O’Sullivan said of Smith, who was moved into the second spot in the batting order.
Smith injured his finger a month ago in the opening SEC series against Mississippi State while diving back to first base. He rejoined the lineup last weekend and had been swinging the bat well since. He was the National Junior College Player of the Year last season at Young Harris College, and the Gators have been waiting for his bat to come around. His emergence in the past few weeks also has given the lineup another right-handed bat that it needed. Smith’s batting average was in the low-.200s last weekend, and he now has it up to .286.
“That’s why we recruited him,” O’Sullivan said. “I thought he was going to be a good player. Even though they’re junior college players, it takes them a little time to adjust to this level. Getting hurt set him back. He is starting to swing the bat a lot better.”
The Gators go for the series clincher Sunday at 1 p.m. Florida will send another freshman to the mound, this time left-hander Brian Johnson (3-2, 3.47 ERA), to face Arkansas freshman left-hander Randall Fant (3-0, 2.62 ERA).