The No. 18 Gators were far from perfect in their series opener against Missouri on Friday night/early Saturday morning.
Starting pitcher Franco Aleman couldn’t make it through four innings and gave up five runs. The defense committed two errors, and the offense went through a lull in the middle innings following a hot start.
“I think we came out a little bit sluggish, to be honest with you,” Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “We had the wild pitch that we didn’t score from third, had another couple of wild pitches or balls in the dirt we didn’t advance on. We talked about that because they have a tendency to spike some balls. We weren’t very clean defensively. We got them together in the dugout, and it didn’t look really crisp.”
They might not have played up to O’Sullivan’s standard, but they played well enough to get the win in a game that was delayed for nearly three hours due to a heavy and persistent rain. The Gators defeated the Tigers 8-5 behind an early offensive explosion and stellar relief pitching by Christian Scott.
UF (23-11, 7-6 SEC) pounded out 13 hits, led by a perfect 4-for-4 effort by catcher Nathan Hickey. Kirby McMullen, Jud Fabian and Jordan Carrion all notched two hits apiece. After struggling mightily with runners in scoring position in a midweek defeat of Florida State, the Gators went 5-for-13 (.385) in those situations on Friday night.
Fabian opened the scoring in the bottom of the second when he lined a first-pitch fastball from Seth Halvorsen onto the berm in left for his 12th home run of the year.
That lead was short-lived, however. Ty Wilmsmeyer led off the third inning with a bloop double into right field. He scored when Brandt Belk reached base on a throwing error by McMullen at third base on what should’ve been a routine play to end the inning.
McMullen more than atoned for his defensive miscue in the bottom of the inning. After Jacob Young walked and Hickey singled, McMullen deposited a hanging slider beyond the left center field wall to give the Gators the lead.
“I thought he might’ve gone fastball, but I saw it pretty good and put a good swing on a good pitch, and, luckily, it found a spot over the fence,” McMullen said.
With one out, Fabian doubled down the left field line. He scored on Jordan Butler’s single to right field. Kendrick Calilao brought home Butler with a triple that rolled to the wall in right center field. Colby Halter made the lead 7-1 with a sacrifice fly to left.
Rather than having a killer instinct and finishing the Tigers (11-21, 4-9) off early, Aleman let them right back into the game in the fourth. Andrew Keefer led off with a single, and Cameron Swanger walked. They both scored on Luke Mann’s double off of the right field wall. Mike Coletta rolled a single up the middle to score Mann.
“The inconsistencies on the mound, they’ve just got to get cleaned up,” O’Sullivan said. “We score six in the bottom of the third and turn around and give up four. That has been talked about over and over about giving up the rebound runs. The dugout’s all excited, Kirby hits the big three-run homer, we have a really great inning offensively, and then, within 15 minutes, all the momentum is lost in our dugout and with our team. The pitcher’s responsibility is to go out there and put a zero on the board.”
After striking out Wilmsmeyer, Aleman made an errant pickoff throw that allowed Coletta to advance all the way to third. O’Sullivan wasted no time in pulling him in favor of Scott.
Aleman was charged with three earned runs on five hits in 3 1/3 innings. He didn’t have control of his slider, which allowed Missouri’s batters to time up his fastball.
“He just didn’t look comfortable,” O’Sullivan said. “I don’t know. He worked on throwing out of the windup this week and threw the ball really well in the bullpen, so he wouldn’t be exclusively out of the stretch, which he’s done his whole career. He couldn’t land his slider. It looked like he was backing off his stuff early in the game where he was trying to pace himself. Bottom line is you can lose a game as well in the first inning as you can in the ninth. You just got to go as hard as you can for as long as you can, and then, obviously, we’ll go to the bullpen.
“He’s going to have to express himself and tell me what his mindset was because, obviously, whatever it was going into the game, it’s not the right mindset. I was as probably surprised as anybody to see him pitch the way he did tonight because I certainly would not have rewarded him with a Friday night start without having full confidence in him.”
Scott allowed the inherited runner at third base to score on Mark Vierling’s sacrifice fly to cut the lead to 7-5.
Scott dominated from there, tossing 5 2/3 shutout innings to pick up the win. He gave up just one hit and one walk while striking out three.
“I don’t think I had my best stuff today for sure, but I was able to locate in and out of the zone,” Scott said. “I was able to throw inside and outside, so I feel like getting a lot of weak contact, especially early in counts, was big.”
Added O’Sullivan: “We didn’t want to go to him that early, but we felt like that was probably a pivotal part of the game. Obviously, without his outing, his performance tonight, the outcome may have been a little bit different. Really pleased with how he pitched tonight.”
Hickey tacked on an insurance run in the eighth with a double to left center field that scored Carrion, who led off the frame with a single and moved to second on a balk.
The Tigers made things a bit interesting in the ninth. Mann walked and pinch hitter Tre Morris was hit by a pitch to flip the lineup over and bring the tying run to the plate. However, Scott got Vierling to line out to Young in left to end the game.
O’Sullivan will take the win, but Friday’s performance left a lot left to be desired in his mind. He’ll be looking for cleaner performances the rest of this weekend and beyond.
“We’ve got to get more consistent, or we’re going to fall short of our expectations,” he said.