Gators awaken the bats, hold on to beat Stetson

Good luck trying to figure out which version of the Gators you’re going to see on a given night.

For the first few weeks of the season, the Gators were hitting the cover off of the ball and getting solid starting pitching, but the bullpen and the defense were disasters that costed them some games.

When conference play started, things flipped. The bullpen started looking like the strongest part of the team and the defense improved, while the offense went dormant and the starting pitching declined somewhat.

On Tuesday night at Florida Ballpark, they reverted to the February version of themselves. No. 12 Florida got an early offensive explosion and a strong start on the mound and held off Stetson 7-6 despite bullpen and defense issues down the stretch.

“The bottom line is we made four errors tonight and [are] still waiting to put together a complete game,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “We got really good starting pitching. I thought offensively we were really good. We only struck out four times, but we didn’t play very good defense.”

The Gators racked up 13 hits against the Hatters (19-10, 5-1 Atlantic Sun), marking their first double-digit effort in the hit column in seven games. They scored six runs on 12 hits in the first five innings off of Stetson pitchers Jonathan Gonzalez and Jonathan Velazquez to build a four-run lead.

Jacob Young and Nathan Hickey got things started with back-to-back singles in the first inning. Kirby McMullen lofted a sacrifice fly to center field to put the Gators on the board first.

Sterlin Thompson and Jud Fabian hit consecutive singles up the middle with one out in the fourth. Jordan Butler brought Thompson home with a single up the middle and advanced to second on an unsuccessful attempt to cut down Fabian at third. Kris Armstrong singled between the third baseman and the shortstop to score Fabian. With two outs, Josh Rivera doubled down the left field line to score the third run of the inning, though Armstrong was thrown out at the plate to end the inning.

The Gators (19-9, 5-4 SEC) added two more runs in the fifth on an RBI double by Thompson and a sacrifice fly by Fabian.

“Offensively, I thought we were really good,” O’Sullivan said. “We just made some mistakes. A baserunning mistake there, made the first out at third. Had some opportunities early. I think we had the leadoff man on and swung at a ball out of the zone on a 3-1 count. It would’ve been first and second and nobody out, and then I think we had a situation with a runner on third with less than two, and we didn’t cash in.”

Seven of the nine starters recorded hits for the Gators, led by three hits apiece for Thompson and Rivera. Thompson, a lefty, got all three of his hits against left-handed pitchers, an impressive accomplishment.

“Got it going early and then just got in a groove,” Thompson said.

“I just felt comfortable. I hit the ball opposite field, hit really good tonight, stayed on the ball, got good pitches to hit.”

O’Sullivan said Thompson’s plate vision allows him to succeed in matchups that are normally advantageous for pitchers.

“He can recognize whether the ball’s a strike or a ball fairly early, and he handles lefties really, really well,” O’Sullivan said. “A really impressive at bat left-on-left when he went down the left field line for a double there. He’s been swinging the bat good.”

Meanwhile, UF starter Garrett Milchin did his job well, giving up just a pair of solo home runs to Brandon Hylton and Hernen Sardinas while striking out four in five innings.

“I thought he was really efficient on the mound,” O’Sullivan said. “He threw 63 pitches over five and gave up a couple of home runs, but other than that, I thought he threw the ball really well and gave us exactly what we needed in a midweek start.”

Ryan Cabarcas took over to start the sixth and tossed a 1-2-3 inning with two strikeouts.

Then things got a little uncomfortable.

Banks Griffith and Christian Pregent poked consecutive two-out singles off of Cabarcas in the seventh. Following a pitch in Ryne Guida’s at bat, Hickey caught Pregent way too far off of the bag at first for what should’ve been an easy pickoff to end the inning. Instead, he threw it about as hard as he could over Butler’s head and down the right field line to advance both runners. Cabarcas escaped the threat by striking out Guida looking on a 3-2 slider.

With the score still 6-2 in the top of the eighth, Stetson’s Andrew MacNeil singled with one out, and Kyle Ball followed with a double off of Brandon Sproat. Sproat got Sardinas to ground a ball sharply toward Rivera at second. Rivera did the hard part by getting to the ball and fielding it cleanly, but his throw sailed over Butler’s head. Both runs scored to make it 6-4 and bring the tying run to the plate. Sproat got out of the inning with a popout and a strikeout.

Rivera got one of those runs back for his team in the bottom of the inning when he smoked an 0-1 fastball over the wall in left center field for his third home run of the season. Rivera went 3-for-4 with two RBI and eight total bases after entering the game with a .195 batting average.

“I just went up there, tried not to do too much, tried to forget about what happened in the field because that’s been one of my big struggles this year, just being in my head too much,” Rivera said. “To go out there and step in the box and completely forget about what happened, just focus up for the next pitch was huge for me. That worked out in that at bat.

“At that time or in that moment, after I make the error, it’s just ‘I’m due for a hit. I’ve got to do something offensively to make up for what I did defensively.’”

It’s a good thing he did because that swing ended up being the difference in the game.

After an error by McMullen at third base allowed Griffith to reach to open the ninth, Pregent blasted a two-run shot off of Sproat to cut the lead to 7-6. O’Sullivan turned to Franco Aleman, who started last week’s opener against Ole Miss, to close out the game. Aleman surrendered a two-out single to MacNeil but got Ball to pop out to Butler to pick up his fourth save of the season.

A win is a win, but this win felt way more difficult than it should’ve been. If the Gators can ever get all three phases of the game clicking at the same time, look out. If not, expect this rollercoaster ride of a season to continue.

“Still waiting for us to put a complete game together,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve done that throughout the year so far but not consistently enough and certainly not good enough when we get into SEC play.

“We’ve just got to somehow figure out a way to put all three phases of our game together.”

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.