Tucker’s record blast ignites Gators

Preston Tucker made history in a familiar way for Florida in its road series opener vs. the Auburn Tigers.

Tucker, one hit away from becoming the all-time school leader in hits, smacked a two-run home run in the second inning to break the previous mark of 319 hits held by former second baseman Mark Ellis. The Florida offense, led by its slugging trio of Tucker, Nolan Fontana and Brian Johnson, erupted early in Auburn, Ala., en route to a commanding 6-0 win.

No. 2 Florida improves to 39-15 and 17-11 on the year. Auburn falls to 29-25 and 12-16.

Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan made a point to commend his slugging senior after the game.

“Just want to say congratulations to Preston and his family,” O’Sullivan told the IMG Gator Sports Network. “Obviously he broke the hit record tonight and couldn’t have happened to a better person. He’s worked extremely hard. He’s been an unbelievable student–athlete in our program the last four years. We’re very grateful he came back his senior year. That is a special record. That’s not one of those things that comes around all the time.”

Tucker drilled a third-inning shot over the right field wall against William & Mary Feb. 27 in Gainesville surpassing Brad Wilkerson with 215 career RBI.

After Tucker, Fontana and Johnson went 2 for 31 last weekend against Mississippi State, the lineup of Fontana-Tucker-Zunino had eight of 10 Florida hits and went 8 for 12 at the plate.

Florida right-hander Hudson Randall shut down the leading offense in the Southeastern Conference in a dominating three-hit shutout for his seventh victory this season. Randall threw a complete game for the third time in his career. The three hits are a career low for the junior right-hander.

O’Sullivan said the start keeps relievers like Greg Larson, Austin Maddox and Steven Rodriguez fresh for the remaining two games.

“Hudson Randall pitched his heart out,” O’Sullivan said. “I believe it’s the first complete game of the year. He saved our ‘pen for the next two nights. Special outing for him. Gave us a great lift to start the weekend.”

Florida entered the weekend needing a sweep for a chance for a regular season SEC title. The Gators began the series behind conference-leading South Carolina and second-place Kentucky.

If Florida sweeps Auburn, LSU takes two of three from South Carolina and Mississippi State wins two of three from Kentucky, then the Gators finish

the regular season in the top spot.

The LSU-South Carolina game was rained out and Mississippi State defeated Kentucky.

All Florida can do is concern themselves with the Auburn Tigers.

“That’s all we’re worried about this weekend,” O’Sullivan said. “We want to want play good baseball and it’s even simpler than that. We want to play sound baseball. We want to play our best baseball at the end of the year. We’re not watching other scores, because it really doesn’t matter. We got to play well. We’re trying to pace ourselves at home. We want to play at home in front of our home crowd for the regional (and) super regional.

“They’ve been great all year for us. Obviously this weekend is a big weekend for us to hopefully get one of those top-eight national seeds. We’re off to a good start. The weekend is not over so we’ll enjoy this one, but we’ll come out ready tomorrow.”

Left-hander Brian Johnson (5-4, 4.29) takes the hill at 7 Friday night vs. the Tigers. The Gators will attempt to clinch its eighth conference series this season.

Florida scored runs in first, second and fourth innings Thursday. Auburn right-hander Jon Luke Jacobs left the game after 1.1 innings, 11 batters and five earned runs.

The offense encouraged O’Sullivan.

“If we can get hot offensively, and I truly believe in this team and I know sometimes this game can be frustrating, but the way we pitched, the way we played defense and not if but when we get our bats going, we’re going to be a very tough team to beat in postseason,” he said.

Pitching performances like the one by Randall and the 3-for-4 hitting exhibition put on by Tucker in the opener means victories for Florida.

Like his RBI record-breaking home run in late February, Tucker homered over the right field wall for the hits record. The home run energized the Gators.

“Everybody was excited,” O’Sullivan said. “We joked about it. He broke the RBI record with a home run I believe and he broke the hit record with a home run, so I guess he is going out in style. What an unbelievable couple of records. He’s arguably going to go down in the records book as one of the best hitters to ever play at Florida. You can’t say enough about that accomplishment. You’re talking about someone who had a hard decision to make to come back his senior year.

“He made a commitment to this program to come back and he knew what was in front of him. His name is going to be on top of that list for an awfully long time.”