For two innings, it looked like the No. 9 Gators would be in a back-and-forth dogfight with Georgia on Saturday night at Florida Ballpark.
The Bulldogs jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the top of the second before UF answered with two of its own in the bottom half of the inning.
Then the Gators brought the boom.
Florida cranked four home runs and scored nine unanswered runs to defeat Georgia 9-2 and clinch the series.
Jud Fabian launched his SEC-best 19th and 20th homers of the season, both solo shots. Kendrick Calilao added his third home run in the last five games, while Josh Rivera lined a two-run shot. Rivera led the team with four RBI, while Fabian and Jacob Young added two apiece.
“The thing about Jud is he’s got 20 home runs now, and we were talking in the dugout between innings, me and the other coaches, and this field is not one of the easiest fields to hit home runs on,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “It’s 380 feet in the gap, and the wind doesn’t always blow out, and that type of thing.”
On the mound, UF starter Hunter Barco continued his recent streak of dominance. He tossed 6 1/3 innings and gave up just two runs on six hits with eight strikeouts.
Corey Collins got the excitement started for the night by drawing a leadoff walk from Barco in the second. Fernando Gonzalez followed with a double down the left field line that advanced Collins to third. Collins scored on a wild pitch, and Gonzalez scored on an infield single to third by Randon Jernigan.
Barco limited the damage by striking out Ben Anderson and Cole Tate.
“I had strep [throat] on Tuesday, but I’m over that now,” Barco said. “I just didn’t feel great during the game. Just got a little sick like midway through, but it’s all right. Grinded, battled.
“As I’ve started to get older, you’re not happy about giving up runs, but as [O’Sullivan] always says, don’t let one run turn into two, don’t let two runs turn into three and so on,” Barco said. “That’s pretty much just the bulldog mentality you’ve got to have.”
Calilao picked up UF’s first hit of the game with a groundball back up the middle to open the bottom of the inning off of UGA starter Jaden Woods. Rivera and Cory Acton walked to load the bases with two outs. After fouling off four consecutive pitches, Young finally put one in play back up the middle for a two-run single that tied the game.
Fabian led off the bottom of the third inning with a moonshot of a home run to left field that left the stadium in a hurry. Two batters later, Calilao lined a pitch off of the railing of the Georgia bullpen to make it a 4-2 Gators lead.
The Bulldogs (28-20, 11-15 SEC) threatened to answer right back in the top of the fourth. Chaney Rogers laced a one-out single to center field, and Jernigan reached on a perfectly placed bunt. Barco got Anderson to ground out to Rivera at short on a slow roller. He then got Georgia’s best hitter, Josh McAllister, to line out to a leaping Calilao at first base to end the inning.
Acton made the defensive play of the year to start the fifth. Cole Tate hit a looping liner that seemed destined to land in shallow center field for a leadoff single. Instead, Acton laid out, made an incredible diving catch and held on as he hit the ground. Barco then picked up two strikeouts in a scoreless inning.
The Gators (35-15, 17-9) blew the game wide open in the bottom of the inning. Fabian smashed the first pitch he saw from Darryn Pasqua just beyond the reach of the left fielder Jernigan for his second homer of the game. With the blast, he became just the fifth player in UF history to hit 20 homers in a season.
“I’ve been trying to be more aggressive lately because when you get in a two-strike count, bad things happen, and strikeouts come,” Fabian said. “That’s what happened the first half of the year, and I’m trying to cut down on that. So, being aggressive kind of takes the two strikes out of it, and I got a fastball 1-1 against a lefty in the first one, put a good swing on it. And then I was actually sitting slider on the second one. He threw me a fastball, and I was able to get my hands on it and hit it out.”
Once again, the homers came in a set of two. After Kirby McMullen singled to left field with two outs, Rivera launched his home run into the Georgia bullpen to make it a 7-2 game.
UF tacked on two more runs against former Gators pitcher Nolan Crisp in the bottom of the seventh on Rivera’s bases-loaded single through the left side.
Christian Scott followed Barco to the mound and gave up just one hit in 1 2/3 innings. The two runs Rivera provided in the seventh allowed O’Sullivan to take Scott out of the game and keep him as fresh as possible for the series finale. David Luethje finished things out by pitching a scoreless ninth.
Saturday was an all-around clean night for the Gators. They reached double figures in hits, only stranded five runners on base, put up seven consecutive zeroes on the mound, didn’t commit an error and made a handful of impressive defensive plays.
“This might’ve been the best defensive game that we’ve played all year long,” O’Sullivan said. “Kirby made a really nice play to his left, and Josh has made an adjustment [with] obviously getting rid of the ball a little bit quicker. What can you say about Cory’s defense? I mean, it was outstanding today. I think defensively and then obviously pitching-wise and offensively, it was a really complete game for us.”
But it was the long ball that turned a competitive game into a laugher.
The Gators will try to rollover their momentum at the plate into the finale on Sunday at noon. A sweep would put the Gators in a decent position to win the SEC East and earn a top-8 national seed.