Sunday’s series finale between No. 12 Florida and No. 6 Tennessee had a “here we go again” type of vibe to it for the first six innings.
The Gators built an early lead, only to watch it eviscerate due to poor pitching and horrendous defense in the middle innings. Just like they did in their first five SEC road games, all losses.
This time, though, the Gators fought back and came out on top. Kris Armstrong provided the punch at the plate with a pinch-hit three-run home run, and Christian Scott turned in a phenomenal performance on the mound, as the Gators escaped Knoxville with a 7-6 win.
“This league is not easy, and it’s difficult to navigate through 30 games,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “Obviously, today had some importance to it because we wanted to get back home and be .500. What I told the team at the end is 2017, I believe we started 6-6 in the league and went on kind of a run after that. So, hopefully, a game like this can give us a little confidence moving forward.”
Florida (21-11, 6-6 SEC) opened the scoring in the top of the second off of Tennessee starter Blade Tidwell. Jordan Butler led off with a double to right field. Two batters later, Colby Halter lined a pitch into the right field corner that bounced over the wall for a ground-rule double and a 1-0 lead. Tidwell bounced back to strike out Jordan Carrion and get Jacob Young to ground out to minimize the damage, however.
UF starter Hunter Barco struggled mightily in the bottom of the inning, walking three batters and throwing more than 40 pitches. The Volunteers tied the game on Liam Spence’s bases-loaded walk. Barco struck out three batters in the inning to keep things from unravelling early.
The Gators threatened to snatch the lead right back in the top of the third. Kirby McMullen walked, and Sterlin Thompson singled with one out. After a strikeout, Butler slapped a pitch into left field for an opposite-field single. Third base coach Lars Davis aggressively waved McMullen around third. Left fielder Evan Russell’s throw beat him by several yards, and catcher Connor Pavolony applied the tag in plenty of time.
Young lined a two-run shot over the left field wall in the fourth inning to give the Gators a 3-1 lead.
That’s when things started to look like déjà vu all over again.
The lead turned into a deficit quickly. Logan Steenstra stroked a one-out double to right field and advanced to third on a fielding error by Thompson. Steenstra came in to score on a wild pitch that also resulted in a walk to Spence.
Three pitches later, Max Ferguson lined one directly in front of center fielder Jud Fabian. Fabian got caught somewhere between diving to try to make the catch and playing it on a bounce. It landed and rolled past him all the way to near the warning track. Fabian’s error scored the tying run and put Ferguson on third base with still only one out.
Jake Rucker gave the Volunteers (27-6, 9-3) a 4-3 lead with a groundout to Halter at third.
Barco didn’t pitch very well for the second time in his last three starts. He gave up the four runs – although just two of them were earned – on five hits in four innings. He struck out six Volunteers but walked five.
Ryan Cabarcas took over on the mound to start the fifth. After recording a popout, he walked Luc Lipcius and surrendered a towering two-run homer to Pavolony to extend Tennessee’s lead to 6-3. Russell then lined a double to left, which ended the day for Cabarcas after he retired just one batter.
Scott replaced him and never left the game. He pitched the final 4 2/3 innings of the game and gave up just one hit and one walk while striking out six to earn the win.
“It wasn’t exactly how we drew it up, honestly,” O’Sullivan said. “But he pitched great today for us, and we obviously extended him last weekend against Ole Miss. He gave us everything he had today, and he needed to. Getting that last out there in the ninth was obviously big for him, and, hopefully, moving forward, his confidence will be at another level.”
Tennessee reliever Camden Sewell plunked Young and walked Nathan Hickey to begin the seventh. They advanced to second and third on a wild pitch. The Gators got one run back on an RBI groundout by McMullen, though Sewell prevented further damage with a strikeout and a flyout.
Sean Hunley replaced Sewell to start the eighth. Josh Rivera singled with one out, and Halter followed with a double into the right center gap.
Looking for some instant offense and a more advantageous matchup, O’Sullivan inserted Armstrong into the game to bat for Carrion. Armstrong has perhaps the most power of anyone on the team, and he showed that to the world.
Armstrong unloaded on an 0-1 fastball from Hunley that caught way too much of the plate. Even with the wind blowing in at more than 10 miles per hour, it was never in question. The ball landed outside of the stadium, and the Gators had a 7-6 lead.
“In his at bat on Friday night, he hit the ball really hard against [Hunley] as well,” O’Sullivan said. “Obviously, the wind was blowing in, so he hit that ball right through the wind. It was a really big at bat for us, obviously.”
Despite getting a couple of runners in scoring position in the eighth and ninth innings, the Gators couldn’t tack on any insurance runs.
It didn’t matter. Scott simply wasn’t going to let Tennessee score. Jordan Beck singled with two outs in the ninth, but Scott got Lipcius to roll over a pitch to the right side of the infield. Defensive replacement Cory Acton made a diving stop and threw Lipcius out from the outfield grass for the final out.
The Gators got a huge day from the bottom of their order. Butler, Rivera and Halter each recorded two hits from the six, seven and eight spots. Young and Thompson also notched multi-hit games.
“Colby’s been giving us some really good at bats,” O’Sullivan said. “These young players playing on the road for the first time in this league, it’s a learning experience. Sometimes their swings get a little bit big ,and the game speeds up on them a little bit. I thought today a couple of the freshmen really settled in.”
While Florida still lost the series, Sunday’s win was extremely important. With their regional host hopes fading away, even making the NCAA Tournament field might’ve been in question if they had fallen to 5-7 in conference play. Instead, they’re back to .500 and finally figured out a way to exercise those road demons.
The Gators look to carry the momentum generated by the comeback win into Tuesday night’s battle with Florida State in Gainesville. The Seminoles beat the Gators 10-2 in Tallahassee earlier this season.