The term “must-win” is overused in sports. It’s important to not let the outcome of one game or one series blind your vision of a long season, especially in the 56-game grind that is the college baseball season.
Still, this weekend’s series between No. 18 Florida and Missouri felt like not only a must-win series for the Gators but a must-sweep series.
The Tigers entered the weekend as one of two SEC teams with an overall losing record. They ranked last in the league in both team batting average and team earned run average. With the Gators trying to creep back into contention following their sluggish start to conference play, they needed to take care of business at home against a team like this.
They were challenged in all three games, but they did just that. UF won both ends of a Saturday doubleheader, 8-6 and 6-4, to accomplish the rare feat of winning three games within a span of 24 hours.
“I think everybody’s kind of tired,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “I’m sure Missouri is as well, but we did just enough to win all three games. We’ve got some things we obviously need to improve on, but, at this point in the season, when you’re finding ways to win even when you don’t play the cleanest of games is important for your team’s character and mental development.”
The first game of the day started ominously for the orange and blue. The Tigers (11-23, 4-11 SEC) rocked Gators starter Tommy Mace to the tune of five runs on four hits in the second inning. Andrew Keefer and Cameron Swanger started the onslaught with groundball singles with one out. Luke Mann walked to load the bases. Mike Coletta hit a sacrifice fly, and Joshua Holt brought in the second run with a single. A balk by Mace and a two-run bomb to right field by Mark Vierling put the Gators in a world of danger early on.
The Gators (25-11, 9-6) answered back in the bottom of the inning off of Missouri starter Spencer Miles. Jud Fabian led off with a double and scored two batters later on a fielder’s choice by Josh Rivera.
Mace bounced back from the rough second inning to toss three scoreless and hitless innings. He walked one batter and struck out six.
“I’m still going to try to tinker with this pitching stuff,” O’Sullivan said. “The bullpen was outstanding, but, at some point, you’d like to settle in on three starters. I thought Tommy rebounded really well after the second inning and put up a bunch of zeroes after that. I thought he was much better. If he doesn’t put up the zeroes, we probably don’t win the first game.
“I think for us to really make that next jump, our starting pitcher needs to be solidified a little bit more.”
Mace’s effort allowed the Gators’ offense to battle all the way back to take the lead in the bottom of the fifth.
Walks to Colby Halter and Jacob Young and a single by Jordan Carrion loaded the bases with nobody out. Lukas Veinbergs walked Nathan Hickey to bring in a run. Kirby McMullen singled to left for an RBI, and Kendrick Calilao brought in a run with a sacrifice fly to center. Rivera came through with a two-out two-strike single to left center to give the Gators a 6-5 lead.
As has too often been the case this season, the positive momentum generated by that inning didn’t even last 15 minutes.
Brandt Belk and Torin Montgomery singled off of Mace to start the sixth. O’Sullivan made a move to the bullpen to bring in Jack Leftwich. Leftwich got Keefer to ground into a double play, but a run scored in the process to tie the game at six.
UF retook the lead in the bottom of the inning. Young dropped down a bunt single with one out and advanced to third on a pair of wild pitches by Veinbergs. McMullen plated him with a sacrifice fly to right.
Leftwich handled business from there, pitching the final four innings without giving up a hit. He has now thrown eight consecutive hitless and scoreless innings in his last two outings following the nightmare at Tennessee.
“After Tennessee, I just had to kind of look myself in the mirror,” Leftwich said. “Obviously, everyone saw how I reacted, and I just knew I was better than that. I’ve got to be a leader on the team. This is my fourth year here, and that can’t happen. I just got back to work. I just had to regain my confidence because each one of those games, I was kind of losing confidence. And so then the Tennessee one, I was like, ‘I’ve got snap out of this.’
“I was just kind of going out there and having fun on Tuesday [against Florida State] and pitching like I know how to and moving around, jumping around, having energy. Then today was kind of like the same thing, and so I’m just going to keep building off that.”
The Gators added an insurance run in the eighth when Young singled home Halter, who led off the inning with a double.
Young, Fabian and Halter each recorded two hits in the first game of the doubleheader, while Rivera drove in three runs.
The second game of the day started off much more favorably for Florida. Fabian stroked a one-out double into the left center field gap in the bottom of the second. Sterlin Thompson followed with a single to right. A wild pitch by Tigers starter Zach Hise scored Fabian, and Halter’s single to right center field gave the Gators an early 2-0 advantage.
Once again, UF surrendered a rebound run. Clayton Peterson led off the third inning with a single off of Hunter Barco. Ty Wilmsmeyer tried to lay down a sacrifice bunt but was able to beat Barco’s throw to first for a single. With two outs, Montgomery poked a single through the right side to get the Tigers on the board.
Barco settled in from there, giving up five hits and just the one run in 6 1/3 innings.
“He wiggled out of some situations early in the game and only gave up the one run, I think, in the second,” O’Sullivan said. “And then after that, he was really good. I thought his command was probably as good as it’s been all year long.”
Barco ran into a bit of trouble in the seventh. Tre Morris led off with a single and was replaced by pinch runner Ross Lovich. Lovich stole second, and Peterson walked with one out. Trey Van Der Weide entered out of the bullpen and got Wilmsmeyer to ground into a 5-4-3 double play to end the threat.
The Gators blew the game open in the bottom half of the inning thanks in part to three walks. Calilao and Rivera sandwiched RBI singles around a bases-loaded walk by Thompson to expand the lead to 5-1.
The Tigers got one of those runs back in the eighth on a long home run by Montgomery, but the Gators answered back. Young and Hickey walked to start the inning, and Young scored on Calilao’s single to left field.
“When you play that many innings in such a short amount of time, you kind of expect the unexpected, but I thought offensively we kind of stayed into it,” O’Sullivan said. “The second game today, we got into quite a few 2-0 and 3-1 counts, and we didn’t cash in so to speak. I don’t know if that was fatigue or what. Other than that, I thought we were really good offensively.”
Missouri made things interesting by scoring a pair of runs and putting the tying run on base in the ninth inning, but Van Der Weide got Joshua Day to ground out to Carrion at short to end the game.
Calilao went 2-for-5 with two RBI in the finale, while Thompson went 2-for-2 with an RBI. Van Der Weide pitched the final 2 2/3 innings to pick up his first save of the season.
With the pair of wins on Saturday, the Gators have tied their season-best with a five-game winning streak. After a midweek tilt at Jacksonville, they’ll look to keep the momentum going with a series at Auburn, who sits in last place in the conference at 2-13.
“To avoid the sweep and come away with that win Sunday [at Tennessee], it definitely gave us the energy we needed to come against FSU, and that big win also gave us the energy we needed to come in this series and be ready to play,” Rivera said.
“We’re just hoping that we can get on a roll here, and we can keep everything going with the hot hand.”