Hunter Barco and Jacob Young brought their “A” game on Saturday.
Barco, the second-year freshman lefty, pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings. He allowed just two hits and one walk while striking out a career-high-tying 10 batters.
Young, the third-year sophomore left fielder, broke out of a bit of a slump at the plate by going 4-for-5 with four RBI.
Behind their superb performances, the No. 10 Gators cruised to a 9-2 defeat of Kentucky at Kentucky Pride Park to win their fourth consecutive SEC series.
It was a solid day all around for the boys wearing the grey pinstripes. The offense pounded out 11 hits. Nathan Hickey, Kendrick Calilao and Josh Rivera also amassed multiple hits, and Hickey drove in a pair of runs. On the mound, three UF pitchers combined for 13 strikeouts and just six hits allowed. They failed to commit an error defensively for the first time in eight games.
The Gators (33-14, 15-9 SEC) scored a run in each of the first three innings off of Wildcats starter Zack Lee to seize control of the game. With one out in the first, Hickey smoked a line drive back up the middle. Kentucky center fielder Cam Hill dive for the ball and came up empty. The ball rolled all the way to the wall, which gave Hickey a stand-up triple. Jud Fabian opened the scoring with a sacrifice fly to right.
Calilao singled up the middle and Cory Acton was hit by a pitch to put a runner in scoring position in the second. With two outs, Young singled to center field to score Calilao.
With a runner on second and two outs in the third, Calilao lined a single to center. Hill made a strong throw home, but Kris Armstrong just beat the tag to make it a 3-0 advantage.
Florida loaded the bases with one out in the fourth, but Lee escaped the jam with a popout and a groundout.
Kentucky (27-17, 11-13) wasn’t as fortunate in the fifth. Calilao drew a leadoff walk, which ended Lee’s day. Reliever Alex Degen surrendered a first-pitch single to Rivera. Acton reached when the left fielder dropped the ball while trying to make a sliding catch to load the bases. Young picked up his second RBI of the game with a sacrifice fly to right.
Meanwhile, Barco was terrific. He did hit three batters and wasn’t as efficient with his pitch count as you’d like, but he was almost unhittable.
The Wildcats didn’t record their first hit against him until the fourth inning, when Coltyn Kessler poked one into left field to give his team runners on first and second with nobody out. A groundout by Oraj Anu moved both runners into scoring position, but Barco struck out Ryan Ritter and got Zeke Lewis to ground out to keep UK off of the scoreboard.
After surrendering a two-out single in the fifth, Barco retired the next six batters he faced, a streak that ended when he plunked Hill with a pitch with two outs in the seventh. That ended his day after 107 pitches.
“He got underneath a lot of those right-handed hitters’ barrels, and I thought his last two innings might’ve been the best two innings of the whole day,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “Really pleased with his outing, obviously, and we needed that against a really good offensive Kentucky team.”
Christian Scott replaced him and walked the first batter he faced but struck out Austin Schultz to end the inning.
UF took advantage of a leadoff double just inside of the third base bag by Young to tack on its fifth run in the eighth. A flyout to deep center by Hickey moved Young to third, and Young scored on Armstrong’s sacrifice fly to center.
Kentucky ended the shutout and put a little scare into Gators fans in the bottom of the inning. Kessler and Anu blasted back-to-back home runs to cut the lead to 5-2. Scott then walked Ritter, which prompted O’Sullivan to call on Jack Leftwich for the fifth conference game in a row.
Leftwich gave up a single to Lewis, which brought the tying run to the plate. However, Leftwich ended the threat by getting Hill to fly out to Fabian in center.
Whatever doubt the bottom of the eighth inning put in fans’ minds was quickly put to rest by the Gators’ bats. Rivera blooped a one-out single to right and advanced to third on a pair of wild pitches by Jimmy Ramsey. Acton and Cal Greenfield walked to load the bases. Young plated two runs with a groundball through the left side.
“It was probably a little bit frustrating with the first two games offensively, but I thought they did a nice job pitching against [Young], to be quite honest with you,” O’Sullivan said. “I think he made some adjustments today and kind of cheated to some pitches that they had gone to the first two games. He’s a really good player. We’re fortunate to have him. Obviously, he stepped up today and gave us a really good game at the plate.”
Hickey capped the scoring with a line-drive double down the right field line.
“I think we had left 10 guys stranded over the first four innings, and it was a bit frustrating because you just kind of knew that at some point Kentucky would make a run at us,” O’Sullivan said. “But we hung in there, and we scored some runs late against their top reliever.”
Leftwich gave up a two-out single in the bottom of the inning but easily finished things off to earn his fourth save of the season.
“I tell you what, he’s been selfless, and he’s been a really good teammate to make the move from the rotation to the bullpen,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s been a champ. He’s been a really good team player, and I think he’s enjoying the role right now. He’s been pitching really good for us at the end of the ballgame.”
The weekend started off looking bleak for the Gators. They lost a very winnable game on Thursday and were down to their final strike on Friday. But, in what has become an encouraging trend of late, they found a way to pull off a big-time series win.
By taking two of three from the Wildcats, the Gators strengthened their bid to host a regional and remained within striking distance in the SEC standings.
“Our offense has been really good, and I’m just pleased with how we’re playing,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s not easy to lose the first game against Vanderbilt and win the next two, and, certainly, it’s not easy to lose on the road in the first game and then win the next two.”