After racking up 20 runs and 32 hits in their previous two games, the Gators’ offense finally crashed back down to earth on Saturday afternoon.
Three Tennessee pitchers combined to pitch a four-hit shutout to eliminate the sixth-seeded Gators from the SEC Tournament by a 4-0 score.
Righty Camden Sewell, normally one of the Volunteers’ top relievers, got the start and tied a career high with six innings pitched. He yielded just two hits and struck out a career-high six batters.
Sewell threw three different pitches, an upper-80s to lower-90s sinker, a mid-80s fastball and a slider. What he lacked in overwhelming stuff he made up for with pinpoint command and deception. UF’s batters always seemed to be looking for something different than what he threw.
“I think our timing was a little bit off,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “We felt like we hit with two strikes a ton today, and it was just one of those days.”
Lefty Redmond Walsh followed Sewell to the mound and struck out a batter in a scoreless frame. Closer Sean Hunley tossed the final two innings and only gave up a couple of fluky singles in the ninth to send the second-seeded Volunteers (45-15, 20-10 SEC) into Sunday’s championship game.
Despite their three weekend starters being unavailable for the remainder of the tournament, the Gators (38-20, 17-13) also received solid pitching on Saturday.
Brandon Sproat made his first career SEC start and pitched much better than his final stat line suggests. He located his upper-90s fastball well and threw his changeup and slider much better than he had all season.
A couple of walks ended up being Sproat’s undoing. After Connor Pavolony led off the top of the third with a single to left, Sproat walked leadoff hitter Liam Spence. A sacrifice bunt by Max Ferguson moved both runners into scoring position. A groundout to third by Jake Rucker resulted in a rundown between third and home and, eventually, an out.
O’Sullivan opted to walk Drew Gilbert to get a right-on-right matchup with Evan Russell. Sproat jumped ahead of Russell 0-2, but his 1-2 offering caught way too much of the plate. Russell pulled it into left field for a single. One run scored, but Jacob Young threw out Rucker at the plate to limit the damage to a single run.
Sproat opened the fourth inning by walking Luc Lipcius. Jordan Beck then crushed a full-count fastball down the left field line. Young dove for it, but the ball deflected off of his glove for a double that scored Lipcius all the way from first. A groundout moved Beck to third. With two outs, Sproat uncorked a wild pitch that scored Beck and made it a 3-0 game. After walking Spence, O’Sullivan brought in Christian Scott out of the bullpen.
Sproat was charged with three runs on five hits in 3 2/3 innings. He walked four and struck out four.
“I’m really pleased with how he threw today,” O’Sullivan said. “He had that one leadoff walk that ended up scoring and one wild pitch, but, other than that, he was on point. The fastball was located to both sides, his slider is much, much improved and I thought his changeup was outstanding today.
“So, as far as where he started from the beginning of the year to where he is now, I’m really pleased with where he’s at, and I do feel comfortable with him in some really tough situations moving forward.”
Scott steadied the ship in his three innings, giving up just one hit and striking out three batters. He gave up a leadoff single to Spence to begin the seventh inning. A sacrifice bunt moved him to second, and a groundout advanced him to third.
Once again, O’Sullivan tried to play the odds by bringing in lefty Trey Van Der Weide to face Gilbert.
Once again, it backfired, as Gilbert lined a 1-0 pitch from Van Der Weide back up the middle to finish the scoring for the game.
Van Der Weide wound up pitching one inning, striking out two batters and giving up two hits.
Jack Leftwich pitched the final 1 1/3 innings of the game.
While getting shutout by a division rival was a tough way to go out of this tournament, there’s no denying that this was a successful week overall for the Gators. They received excellent pitching from just about everyone that touched the mound, played solid defense and swung the bats at a sizzling hot level for two games.
“We definitely showed ourselves that we’re the team that we know we can be,” catcher Mac Guscette said. “We came in here after getting swept [at Arkansas], just coming to play, have fun, and we showed who we are. So, we’re going to keep rolling throughout the rest of the playoffs.”
They solidified their status as a regional host, and they’ll enter that regional playing their best baseball of the year. And they may have identified a fourth starter in Sproat should things not go as planned in the regional.
“Starting pitching has been outstanding all week,” O’Sullivan said. “We swung the bats. I think we learned a lot about our team. Getting Mac behind the plate, I think, solidified some things behind the plate. Made the decision to put Nathan [Hickey] at third. So, yeah, I think we learned a lot about our team over these past 10 days, and I think it puts us in a much better position moving forward for a regional.”
Florida will learn where it is seeded and who will be coming to Gainesville during the selection show on Monday afternoon.
“I’m hoping the fans come out there,” Young said. “We have full capacity, so I’m hoping there will be a lot of fans, good crowds and a lot of energy. We love playing at home, so we’re looking forward to it.”