The Florida Ballpark scoreboard might’ve read “Miami 10, Florida 9” on Saturday evening, but anybody who watched the game knows what really happened.
The No. 1 Gators beat themselves. They choked. They gave it away. They probably did every other cliché verb you can think of.
The Gators led 8-5 heading into the top of the ninth inning and had highly regarded junior college transfer Franco Aleman on the mound to close out the game and clinch a series victory. Aleman proceeded to walk five batters and hit a man to send the game into extra innings. The Hurricanes only put the ball in play in fair territory twice in the inning, both resulting in outs, and yet they scored three times.
Aleman had no command of his mid- to high-90s fastball and an inconsistent feel for his offspeed pitches. Despite the free baserunners piling up and his pitch count for the game eventually reaching 63, coach Kevin O’Sullivan didn’t have anybody warming up in the bullpen until after the tying run was on second base. By then, the damage was done.
O’Sullivan has no regrets over his decision to leave Aleman in as long as he did. He views Aleman as a critical piece of the Gators’ late-game plans and trusts him to get things figured out. He won’t shy away from running him out there again next time.
“He’s been throwing great up until this point,” O’Sullivan said. “I’ve never seen him do that. I trust him. He’s our guy at the end of the game.
“If you start making changes or start making quick decisions this early in the season, if that’s going to potentially be his role, then that’s not sending the right message to him. He’s got to be the guy probably at the end of the game for us. Today was just not his day. Simple as that.”
While Aleman let the No. 21 Hurricanes back into the game, he was far from the only reason that Florida lost. In total, UF’s pitching staff walked 11 batters and plunked two more. The defense committed three errors that resulted in three unearned runs. Miami’s two runs to take the lead in the 13th inning were aided by two walks, a hit batter and a fielding error by first baseman Kris Armstrong.
Armstrong also made a crucial mistake on the basepaths. He led off the bottom of the seventh inning with a walk. Josh Rivera followed with a single to right center. Armstrong had to hold up to see if the ball would be caught. He then thought there would be a close play at second base, so he slid into the bag. As it turned out, Miami’s right fielder hadn’t even picked up the ball yet. So, Armstrong got up and successfully advanced to third. However, when he got up out of his slide at second base, his first step was toward first base in an effort to regain his balance. By rule, he needed to retouch second base before advancing to third. He didn’t, Miami successfully appealed the play, and Armstrong was called out.
Instead of runners on the corners and no outs, the Gators had a runner on first and one out. They wound up not scoring that inning.
O’Sullivan also thought starting pitcher Jack Leftwich could’ve been sharper, especially with his changeup against Miami’s left-handed-heavy lineup. Leftwich threw five innings and gave up two earned runs on five hits with one walk and two strikeouts. It took him 91 pitches to get that far, which meant that the bullpen had to cover four innings. That ended up being a huge factor in the game.
“You go back to the inning where I think Jack had two outs and nobody on [in the fifth inning], and they scored two runs,” O’Sullivan said. “I think the percentages of that happening is like 1.5 percent. We need to stay focused, and we need to finish the inning. We talk about shutdown innings all the time, and we scored five in the first and turned around and gave up one in the top of the second.”
The Gators’ loss was disheartening, frustrating and unacceptable. There’s no questioning that. The challenge for them now is to learn from their mistakes, flush the negative thoughts from their minds and go win the series on Sunday.
You’re not going to sweep every series, especially against a top-25 team and an instate rival like Miami. Instead, the goal for every college baseball team going into a weekend series is to win the series. The Gators have a chance to do that, even if the process it takes to get there isn’t exactly what they had in mind.
“It’s not devastating; it’s disappointing,” O’Sullivan said. “We lost to our rival, and we’ve played awfully well against them over the years, and today was just not a good baseball game. But there’s things to learn from it, and my job is to, No. 1, get these guys ready to play tomorrow, and then to go over some of the mistakes that we had and then hopefully improve on them. It’s really that simple. The game has already been played. We lost by a run. We made a lot of mistakes.
“I’m not trying to understate the loss, but I don’t want to overstate it, either, because if this loss carries into tomorrow, we’re not going to play well.”