LaPorta ties HR record; VMI wins 7-4

Senior first baseman Matt LaPorta tied the Florida career home run record with his 55th blast with many more expected. The Port Charlotte native aptly declared the young Gators a work in progress after VMI defeated the Gators 7-4 on Saturday afternoon.

Yes, Florida has dropped the first two in the series to VMI and the visitors from the Big South conference threaten to sweep the series with a win tomorrow.

It shouldn’t be all that surprising. After all, the Keydets return seven starters from the 2005 squad that set a club record with 30 wins. This is an up and coming program. VMI has established a new club wins record in three of the last four seasons. Furthermore, most of this same VMI squad opened the 2006 season by taking two out of three on the plains in Auburn, Alabama.

Meanwhile, Florida head coach Pat McMahon is meshing new faces with new faces- and a pair of veterans (Matt LaPorta and Brian Leclerc) in the lineup. The missed opportunities and mental errors that seemingly plague young teams early in the season have tremendously aided the Keydets in these contests.

Look at the costly mistakes- failing to look at ball into the glove, missing opportunities to move runners over or to score, passed balls, getting bad jumps on balls hit in the outfield, missing the cut off man. Most of these are plays these players, regardless of class, have made since Little League. You simply can’t blame that on coaching. Personally, I think that you can chalk most of it up to getting accustomed to the new environment. Still, these guys have little time to work through them before the start of conference play on March 16th.

“We just didn’t do the little things right today,” first baseman Matt LaPorta said. “I can honestly say that I’m pleased with how the team is coming together. You know we had a lot of young guys. I think at one point there were only two starters on the field. A lot of young guys are getting their feet wet. I believe we’ve got tons of talent. We’ve got to build. We’ve got to keep building every game.”

“VMI is a very well-coached team,” he added. “They can play ball. They can play ball with the best teams in the country. They do every little thing correctly. That’s how you win ball games in college.”

Today, things started well enough for the Orange and Blue. Sophomore Stephen Locke cruised through his first inning in a Florida uniform since the College World Series in 2005. The southpaw needed just 11 pitches to send the Keydets down in order.

Things would dramatically change in the second inning for VMI. Catcher Michael Roberts singled between the third base/short gap. Right fielder Eddie Van Es then laid down a perfectly placed bunt to the right side of the mound that stopped in the grass between second and first. Center fielder Justin Hess then moved the runners into scoring position with a beautiful sacrifice bunt just in front of the plate. Designated hitter Robert Litz drove home the first run of the game with a hit to left-center. The Keydets scored their second run of the game on called strike passed ball that got away from catcher Hampton Tignor.

The Gators cut the lead in their half of the inning. Designated hitter Bryson Barber ripped a single to the left-center gap. He moved to second on a wild pitch by VMI pitcher Michael Bowman and to third on center fielder Matt den Dekker’s single to center. He scored on Clayton Pisani’s fielder’s choice to shortstop. Bowman secured the final two outs of the inning in order when right fielder Brian Leclerc grounded out to second base and left fielder Chris Petrie on a fly ball to left field.

VMI added two more runs in the top of the third. Shortstop Chad Rice led off with a single to second base. One pitch later, third baseman A.J. Yoder singled to left field. Crumpler moved the runners over with a sacrifice bunt to third base. Rice scored on Roberts grounder to third. Yoder scored on yet another passed ball. Van Es then walked on four straight pitches. Hess singled to center field to load the bases. Locke got out of the inning with a strikeout on Litz. VMI led 4-1.

Florida once again cut the Keydets lead in half, this time in the fourth. Slugger Matt LaPorta led off the inning with a bomb that cleared the center field fence. LaPorta tied Brad Wilkerson’s school record 55 career home runs with the blast off a fastball that obviously only began to move after it touched LaPorta’s bat. Two batters later, den Dekker walked and was moving as the hit and run was on when Pisani doubled to left-center. With men on the corners and only one out, veteran Brian Leclerc struck out and Chris Petrie flied out to left field.

Seven of the nine hits surrendered by Locke were on the first or second pitch, with most of those coming on the first pitch.

“I think they knew that our plan was to pour the ball through the strike zone,” Locke said of the Keydets first pitch attack. “They’re aggressive at the plate, swinging the bats, and making contact. That’s where our defense comes in, playing good defense. They had some good timely hits and moved runners like they’d been playing all year.”

The Keydets added two more runs in the top of the fifth to move their lead to 6-2.

Florida had two opportunities to rally. In the fifth inning, Cody Neer stepped in for Hampton Tignor and slapped the first pitch down the left field line for a double. Leadoff man Cole Figueroa struck out on three pitches and shortstop Jon Townsend singled to score Neer from second base. Townsend stole second base and Matt LaPorta drove him home with his second hit of the game to cut the Keydets advantage to 6-4. de Dekker then sent an 0-1 pitch off his bat at light speed. The ball seemingly burned into the glove of VMI pitcher Chris Henderson, which just happened to be placed in the absolute perfect spot.

The Gators seemingly had one more chance in the seventh. Neer stroked what was seemingly a single into left field. However, VMI left fielder David Lottman made a beautiful catch after getting a solid jump on the ball. I don’t think anybody believed he’d track that one down. With one out, Figueroa walked on a full count. Townsend followed with a single to left field. With LaPorta at the plate, the Keydets tried to keep the runners from moving into scoring position. However, recently inserted relief pitcher Corey Bachman balked, moving the runners to third and second respectively. LaPorta was then intentionally walked. Barber hit into a double play at second to end the Gators scoring threat.

The Keydets added to their lead in the top of the ninth with a perfectly executed squeeze play that was set up by three Florida errors and a balk.

Florida will play the third and final game of the series tomorrow at 1pm. The Gators will pitch right hander Billy Bullock, while VMI is expected to counter with left hander Travis Smink.

Third baseman Brandon McArthur was out of today’s lineup with a sore arm.

* The Florida bullpen has thrown 5.2 innings and given up just two hits and zero earned runs.