While the Gators’ offensive explosion stole the show in Wednesday’s beatdown of Mississippi State, Thursday evening’s winners’ bracket showdown with Alabama was all about the man on the mound for the Gators.
Franco Aleman was sensational. He pitched a career-high seven innings and gave up no runs on five hits. He walked only one batter and struck out four.
His dominant start, along with some late offense, propelled sixth-seeded UF past the 10th-seeded Crimson Tide 7-2 and into the SEC Tournament semifinals on Saturday. They’ll face the winner of Friday’s elimination game between Alabama and second-seeded Tennessee in a single elimination game. Florida has won its first three games of the SEC Tournament for the first time since 2000.
“I thought it was a really well-pitched game on both sides,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “Their starter, [Dylan Smith], was really, really good, and I think it was a scoreless game through five. Nathan [Hickey] came up with the big home run, but I think the story for us today was Franco Aleman and the start that he gave us. I felt like he pitched really good last weekend at Arkansas, and he certainly built off that today.”
It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Aleman, though. Alabama (31-23, 12-17 SEC) put its leadoff batter on base in four of Aleman’s innings and advanced four runners into scoring position. Each time, Aleman delivered a clutch pitch to keep the Crimson Tide off of the scoreboard.
It was unquestionably Aleman’s best start as a Gator. He’s had some nice moments this season, but consistency has been lacking. He’d often look like an All-American for five innings before letting things spiral out of control in the sixth inning. That’s how his earned run average escalated to 5.61 prior to Thursday. He avoided that one disastrous inning against the Crimson Tide, and that was the difference.
“I think sometimes he maybe has a tendency to overthink certain pitches or certain situations at times,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s been one inning in the outings where he hasn’t been successful. It’s always been like one inning where it kind of got away from him, but I think he’s learning to manage innings better. He’s making the most important pitches of the ballgame; he’s figuring that out.
“There’s a reason why we kept him in the rotation as long as we did because we figured if we had a chance to do what this team ultimately wants to do, he was going to have to be one of our three starters.”
To avoid getting fatigued and letting his delivery get away from him, Aleman tried something different against the Crimson Tide. He operated exclusively out of the stretch toward the end of his start. O’Sullivan said Aleman feels more comfortable pitching out of the stretch in certain situations because of all of the moving parts associated with his 6-foot-6 frame, so he gave him the freedom to go to the stretch when he wanted to.
“I feel like later in games when my legs get tired, I’m able to function better and get all the pitches down from the stretch,” Aleman said. “So, when I get to the sixth, seventh inning, I’m just going to go from the stretch. It’s like facing a new guy. You’re facing reliever Franco. It’s a different story.”
The Gators (38-19, 17-13) needed every single out they got from Aleman because Smith matched him pitch-for-pitch through the first five innings. UF picked up five hits in the first four frames, but four of them came with two outs, which kept the game scoreless until the sixth inning.
Hickey opened the scoring by crushing Smith’s first pitch of the sixth over the 405-feet sign in straightaway center. It was Hickey’s ninth bomb of the season but his first in more than a month.
The Crimson Tide threatened to end the shutout and tie the game back up in the bottom of the inning. Peyton Wilson singled up the middle to lead off the inning, and a groundout advanced him to second. With two outs, Aleman walked Zane Denton after a 10-pitch at bat. On the final pitch to Denton, Wilson tried to steal third. Catcher Mac Guscette delivered a strike to third, and Hickey tagged him out to end the inning.
UF blew the game open in the seventh. Sterlin Thompson led off with a double to left center. He advanced to third on Josh Rivera’s flyout and scored on Cory Acton’s bloop double down the left field line. Acton stole third and scored on Guscette’s groundout to short. Young then blasted his second home run of the tournament into UF’s bullpen in left to make it 4-0.
Florida tacked on three more runs against reliever Jake Eddington in the eighth. Jud Fabian drew a leadoff walk, and Kendrick Calilao advanced him to third with a one-out single to right. Thompson laced a single up the middle to score Fabian. After a balk moved both runners into scoring position, Acton delivered a two-out single up the middle to make it a 7-0 game.
“We started off slow with the bats at the beginning, and we all had, like, really good [at bats],” Thompson said. “And by the second go-around, we started jumping on [his fastball]. We started [getting] multiple hits and getting runners on and having good two-out hits.”
Trey Van Der Weide replaced Aleman to begin the bottom of the inning and got three outs on just nine pitches. Jack Leftwich gave up two runs and labored through 28 pitches to finish things out in the ninth.
UF registered 14 hits as a team, bringing them to 32 hits over their last 16 innings. Young and Thompson had three hits, while Hickey, Fabian, Calilao and Acton notched two apiece. Acton led the team with three RBI.
But this night belonged to Aleman. He was special, and the Gators are two wins away from a championship because of him.