For those who watched the first six innings of the Southeastern Conference opener between Mississippi State and Florida, it was clearly evident this was a much improved, focused group of Gators. Then came the dreaded inning.
What inning? Any inning. A mental collapse during any inning on plays that these players have made since youth ball. The frustration once again set in.
Missed pitches, mental errors, and a fiesty Bulldogs offense all contributed to Florida’s fall in this first conference test. Through much of the non-conference portion of the season, we’ve seen as much- the oft-times porous Florida defense that provided opponents with endless good fortune. Whether it was the start of conference play or just an overall renewed focus, it appeared the Gators had indeed honed in their miscues and focused on playing textbook baseball. Until it reared it’s ugly head once again this time in the seventh.
Right hander Bryan Augenstein held one the the hottest hitting teams in the country (.374 average) in check through the sixth- limiting the Bulldogs to just four hits and a single run. Offensively, the Gators helped their ace by staking him with some much appreciated offense with which to work.
The Gators jumped out to an early lead. With one out, second baseman Avery Barnes worked Mississippi State starter Aaron Weatherford for walk after running the count full. He moved to second on Matt LaPorta’s single up the middle. A ball briefly got away from catcher Edward Easley who gathered the ball and threw down to first hoping to nail LaPorta before he could get back to the bag. However, Easley’s throw sailed over the head of first baseman Mitch Moreland, allowing the runners to advance into scoring position.
After Cole Figueroa struck out, designated hitter Austin Pride drilled a high bouncing single to third baseman Connor Powers. He threw over to first base, but was unable to throw out the hustling Pride. Barnes scored easily and LaPorta was running all the way and beat the throw to the plate to give the Gators a 2-0 lead.
The Bulldogs picked up a run in the fourth after Brandon Turner led of with a single and moved to second on Edward Easley’s walk. It was a situation that thus far has led to one Florida meltdown after another. However, Mitch Moreland put the ball into play at short and Figueroa pitched the ball to Barnes who threw on the LaPorta for the double play. Unfortunately, Brian LaNinfa took an 0-2 count and doubled to score Turner, cutting the Florida advantage in half at 2-1.
A double by catcher Cody Neer in the bottom of the fourth scored right fielder Brian Leclerc, who had been hit by a pitch giving the Gators a 3-1 lead.
Florida added two more runs in the fifth when Jon Townend led off the inning with a walk and moved to third on Barnes single. He scored on a wild pitch by Mississippi State starter Aaron Weatherford. LaPorta followed with a walk on a full count. Barnes scored on Figueroa’s single to give the Gators a 5-1 advantage.
Meanwhile, Augenstein throttled the Bulldogs bats in the fourth and fifth innings. He struck out six, including the first batter in the the seventh inning.
Then like so many times before- disaster struck.
Mississippi State erupted for nine runs in the seventh inning to erase a 5-1 deficit and turn it into a 10-5 advantage. The Bulldogs pounded out nine hits in the inning, while the Florida defense rendered an assist with three errors. However, all the the Bulldogs runs were earned.
Steven Porter (0-1) did not pitch well at all in relief of Augenstein. He allowed four earned runs and walked two. And he needed only 19 pitches to do so. Josh Edmondson and Clint Franklin didn’t really fare all that well either. A bullpen that had played well for much of the non-conference schedule failed to bear down and give a Florida offense that collected 12 hits and battled back for four runs after trailing 10-5.
The Bulldogs scored two more runs in the eighth to take game one in the series. Florida will pitch left hander Stephen Locke tomorrow. First pitch is scheduled for 4pm.