It was as if Oprah herself showed up to McKethan Stadium on Saturday afternoon, handing out home runs to whatever Gator baseball player wanted them.
In the end, three players took one, tallying four home runs as the Florida Gators (2-0) pounded Rhode Island (0-2), and clinched their opening series with a 22-3 win.
It was the first 20+ win since Florida hung 22 on Florida A&M in May of 2013.
With sophomore Dane Dunning making only his second start as a Gator, Rhode Island jumping on the board first and it seemed like the Gators might have to play catch up. That didn’t last for long.
Buddy Reed took a base first from a walk, and advanced on a Ricky Martin sac bunt. Harrison Bader soon joined Reed after being hit by a pitch, the first of five from the Rams starter, Lou Distasio.
Then freshman JJ Schwarz stepped to the plate and sent a long ball over the left field wall. The three run homer put the Gators ahead by two and was a sign of things to come.
For Schwarz, there was never any doubt where the ball was headed. Asked when he knew it was gone, the young catcher responded, “probably the moment I hit it”.
And one person who wasn’t surprised was pitcher Danny Young, who’d already lauded Schwarz early in the week.
“As far as freshmen hitters I’ve faced throughout my three years, he might be the best just pure hitter as far as freshman hitters that have come in here”, Young praised.
After Mike Rivera and John Sternagel were both hit by pitches, sophomore Ryan Larson dropped one into right field and the RBI brought in Rivera to make the score 4-1.
With Sternagel on third, Buddy Reed flew out to right for the sacrifice fly and RBI that gave the Gators a 4-point lead.
Rhode Island was able to hang one in the top of the 3rd, but then Florida settled into an offensive performance that could not be duplicated.
Rivera was able to score Schwarz to make the score 6-2 and wasn’t left on the base himself for too long when Ryan Larson stepped up to bat again.
Larson, who had a total of seven RBI’s all of last season, totaled four on Saturday when he sent one over the wall for a 3-run homer that brought in River and AJ Puk and brought the score up to 9-2.
Unlike Schwarz who was confident about his hit having length, Larson never even considered the possibility.
“I wasn’t expecting to hit a home run today that’s for sure… I’m not a home run hitter so I hit the ball and head was down, thinking second the whole time. Then I looked up and people were cheering so I was like ‘Ok, I guess I’ll start jogging now’.”
But the inning was far from over. With Richie Martin and Dalton Guthrie waiting on the corners, Harrison Bader, who already had one homer under his belt from opening night, sent one out to left that earned a victory lap.
The three run homer gave the Gators a 12-2 lead and was enough for Rhode Island to pull Distasio. After 2 and 2/3 innings pitched, he had hit five batters and gave up three homers.
It wasn’t long after that Dunning left the mound as well, as head coach Kevin O’Sullivan had him on a strict pitch count of 75. He finished his night after 4 and a third innings pitched, two runs, two errors and five strikeouts.
The numbers are far from what his coach believes he’s capable of.
“To be honest, I probably expect him to pitch a little bit sharper”, Sully admitted.
“I mean his stuff is, 91-95, he’s got electric stuff. I think probably he just pitched away from contact maybe a little more than he has in our inner-squads. But for us to get to where we want to get to, he’s gonna have to pitch like he’s certainly capable of. So by no means was he not good today, I guess I just my bar is set kinda high for him because I know how good he is.”
Sean Anderson retired the side to close out the top of the 5th and Rhode Island was able to hold the Gators to no runs in the bottom of the inning.
The Rams made a small dent in their deficit with a single homer in the top of their frame, but then the last half of the 6th came round, and the freshman proved they were just as capable of keeping things rolling.
Christian Hicks notched a RBI double that made it 14-3 and Taylor Lane immediately followed with a RBI double of his own that brought in Hicks for another run.
As Larson would later say, “hitting is contagious, so just thinking of that, one guy gets a hit, it’s like ‘oh I can do it’.”
That seemed to prove true when Harrison Bader brought in Lane and Richie Martin with the Gators fourth 3-run homer of the night to make the score 18-3.
It also brought the season total to five. It took Florida 19 games to get five home runs in 2014 and it took Harrison Bader his first two years in Gainesville to get the same amount of home runs (three) that he has in his first two games of the 2015 campaign.
The at-bat also gave Bader his 6th RBI of the night, a number that had not been reached by a Gator since Justin Shafer in March of 2012.
Bader says it was the whole team hitting collectively that made the difference.
“It’s not only coming from me”, a humble Bader professed.
“That’s always the best part when everyone in the lineup is really hitting, so a lot of freshman are getting work, mainly in hitting and everything you know, they’re just doing an incredible job. Lot of guys getting their first knocks, so that’s always a good thing to sort of just get off your chest.”
He made sure to note though that this is the best team offensive performance he’s ever been apart of at Florida.
Sullivan says he honestly believes a large part of the bats popping had to do with wind and the new regulation baseball (read more about that here). But he also alluded to the fact that this kind of performance shouldn’t be unexpected.
“The guys that hit them have chances [to do it again]. Obviously Larson’s not a home run type guy but I’ve been saying all along, JJ Schwartz has a chance to really hit and obviously Bader’s one of our best players.”
A RBI single from Mike Fahrman and RBI triple from Sternagel gave he Gators a 21-3 lead, and then they added one more run in the 8th with a bases loaded walk.
It was 22 runs when all was said and done, with the freshman earning a tip of the hat for a contributing to most of them.
Freshman JJ Schwarz was thrilled to see his fellow classmates open a season in this way.
“Well it’s a really cool thing that the freshman class can just be able to contribute this early in the season and I think it’s really good for the program.”
And Harrison Bader just can’t quite believe it.
“It’s huge. Freshman always kinda get a little nervous. I remember when I was a freshman, I was a little nervous. So to see their production and everything has been all around, just been really good.”
And Larson sees this as the beginning of a great run for the young guys.
“They’ve all been really relaxed and it doesn’t seem like they’re freshman. They just step up to the plate and like ‘let’s go.’ JJ or Mike or whoever it is up there, they seem really relaxed and they’re doing a great job. They’re gonna be big contributors this year.”
Sullivan anticipated the performance though, saying, “it’s early but we’ve seen all these guys since we started practicing in October… so to say I’m surprised that they’ve been able to handle their own, so to speak, up to this point, no, but it is nice to get everybody out there to play and get they’re feet wet.”
While the offense will garner the attention, it’s the defense that Sully noticed the most. Florida was able to send Rhode Island out nine straight times to close out the 7th, 8th and 9th innings, with 3 up, 3 down sets in each.
“I think that’s one of the things we’re probably most proud of right now”, Sully boasted.
“We’ve only walked 2 guys in 18 innings and we’ve only made one error. Sometimes when games, like the one we had today, they can get a little sloppy, you can lose your concentration and your focus, and I was pleased with how our guys stayed focused and played good defense.”
Florida will continue with both their defense and hitting on Sunday afternoon when they take on Rhode Island for the series sweep. First pitch is at McKethan Stadium at 12:30 p.m. and can be seen on SEC Network +.