Gators coast by Rattlers, look to snap out of road funk

Wednesday night’s game between No. 12 Florida and Florida A&M at Florida Ballpark had a strange feeling to it from the jump.

For starters, UF’s pitchers walked 10 Rattlers and plunked another one. That’s unusual in its own right for a Kevin O’Sullivan-coached pitching staff. With that many free passes, you’d expect the Rattlers to pull out an upset win or at least keep the game competitive.

Instead, the Gators weren’t challenged on the scoreboard. And yet, the game still featured a walk-off single by Nathan Hickey.

Florida pounded out 12 hits and held Florida A&M to just two in its 10-0 win in seven innings. With the Rattlers (10-17, 4-0 MEAC) scheduled to play four conference games this weekend and facing the possibility of a doubleheader on Friday, coach Jamey Shouppe requested for a 10-run mercy rule to be put into effect beginning in the seventh inning. O’Sullivan obliged, and the Gators took advantage.

The Gators (20-9, 5-4 SEC) greeted Florida A&M starter Khalil Wilson with a three-spot in the bottom of the first. Kirby McMullen was hit by a pitch with two outs, and Sterlin Thompson followed by drawing a walk. Jud Fabian cranked a 1-1 pitch high into the sky and well past the left field bullpen for his 10th home run of the year.

The blast was Fabian’s second in the last four games after he endured an 0-for-19 slump. Fabian said he did some work in the batting cages, but it was a mental adjustment that’s proved to make a difference with him.

“I was kind of passive throughout the slump, taking a bunch of strikes,” he said. “You don’t get in two strikes, you can’t strike out. So, being more aggressive is what I thought.”

UF added two more runs on Hickey’s double down the right field line in the second inning.

Three consecutive singles in the sixth inning produced the sixth run of the game, with McMullen picking up the RBI.

Hickey paced the offense by going 4-for-5 with three RBI. Cal Greenfield and Colby Halter also turned in multi-hit days.

On the other side, Gators starting pitcher Timmy Manning didn’t give up a run or a hit in 2 2/3 innings but walked six batters, all with two outs.

“It’s just a matter of closing out innings,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s probably more of a mental block than anything else. You kind of got a glimpse of how good his stuff is. His fastball was really good, his breaking ball was really good, he threw some quality changeups. But, for whatever reason, he hit a little bit of a mental block with two outs.”

Chase Centala followed him to the mound and gave up just one hit in two innings. However, he also walked a couple of batters with two outs. David Luethje walked two batters and hit another in his 1 2/3 innings. Jordan Butler struck out two of the three batters he faced.

Leading 6-0, the Gators loaded the bases with nobody out in the seventh after Halter singled, Jordan Carrion walked and Cory Acton was hit by a pitch. Greenfield plated the first two runs of the inning with a single up the middle. Jacob Young walked to reload the bases. A passed ball by catcher Tucker Rayburn made it 9-0, and Hickey laced a single to left field to end the game.

Next up for the Gators is another crack at ending their road woes when they take on No. 6 Tennessee starting on Friday night. They’re just 1-4 away from Florida Ballpark, and the one win was against a North Florida team that has a losing record. They’ve only recorded more than six hits in a road game twice, and one of those exceptions came in the 14-inning game at South Carolina when they connected for nine hits.

“On the offensive side, I feel like we took too many fastballs when we were at South Carolina,” Hickey said. “I don’t know why it happened because before we were ambushing early fastballs. I think that’s one thing offensively that we’ve got to work on.”

Meanwhile, they have a team earned run average of 6.82 on the road.

O’Sullivan said this is an important weekend for his team to enhance its postseason resume and get some of the mental blocks of playing on the road out of their heads.

“I think that’s the next step for this team, to be able to prove that they can play on the road and play like we’re at home,” he said. “The NCAA came out, and they’re going to announce regional sites and top-8 national seeds by the end of the month. Like everybody else, we need to have a good April. This is a great opportunity for us to go on the road against a ranked team who’s much improved and play well.”

The Gators are ready to put those road demons to rest.

“We’re going to have to play tough,” Fabian said. “We’re going to have to play up to our capability because, when we play like ourselves, we’re the best team in the country.”

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.