Friday night’s series opener between the No. 15 Gators and Auburn felt eerily similar to the Gators’ first six conference road games.
In those previous six games, UF led early, only to watch things spiral away from them in the middle innings due to poor pitching, spotty defense and dormant offense. They wound up losing five of those games.
On Friday, Florida jumped out to a 2-0 lead, only to watch the Tigers tie it in the seventh inning thanks to a couple of poorly located pitches and the offense cooling off after a hot start.
However, for the second SEC road game in a row, the Gators fought back this time. A rally in the top of the ninth provided the decisive runs, and Jack Leftwich picked up his third career save in UF’s 4-2 defeat of Auburn.
“We needed to learn to win a game like that on the road, and I’m really pleased with their effort tonight,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said.
The game certainly wasn’t a situational hitting clinic. The teams combined for 21 hits but went just 3-for-19 with runners in scoring position and stranded 17 runners on the basepaths.
That doesn’t mean that this game wasn’t full of drama, however. Far from it, in fact.
The Gators (27-11, 10-6 SEC) put pressure on the Tigers from the first pitch. Jacob Young and Nathan Hickey each poked opposite-field singles in the top of the first. Auburn starter Jack Owen got out of the jam by getting Kirby McMullen to ground into a double play and striking out Jud Fabian.
Tyler Miller singled with one out in the bottom of the inning and advanced to second on a wild pitch by Franco Aleman with two outs. Aleman induced a groundout out of Steven Williams to end the inning.
Brody Moore led off the bottom of the second with a single and moved into scoring position on a groundout. Once again, Aleman stranded the runner by getting Judd Ward to ground out.
It looked almost certain that the Tigers (16-19, 2-14) would break the scoreless tie in the bottom of the third. Ryan Bliss and Miller and laced consecutive one-out singles. Rankin Woley joined the hit parade with a liner to left. Auburn third base coach Gabe Gross waved Bliss around third. Young scooped up the ball and threw Bliss out at the plate by several yards for the second out. Aleman struck out Williams to keep the game scoreless.
That changed very quickly. McMullen singled with one out in the fourth, and Fabian followed with a rocket that sailed over the scoreboard in left center field to give the Gators a 2-0 lead.
“Probably about two weeks ago, [Fabian] started really seeing the ball better,” O’Sullivan said. “So, obviously, we’re going to need him to go for us to be as good as we want to be moving forward.”
Auburn threatened to put up a rebound run in the bottom of the inning. Cam Hill singled with one out and advanced to second on a wild pitch. Aleman got Kason Howell to ground out and Ward to fly out to end the threat.
Aleman saved his best work of the night for his last full inning, as he struck out the side in the fifth.
The sixth inning is where the “Here we go again” feeling kicked in. Aleman walked Woley to lead off the inning and threw a first-pitch ball to Williams. Sensing that Aleman was starting to lose control as his pitch count rose, O’Sullivan called on Christian Scott out of the bullpen.
Aleman scattered six hits and struck out five batters in his five innings, with just the one walk.
“Franco was really good tonight, and he bounced back from a tough start last week, and [I’m] really pleased with his effort,” O’Sullivan said.
Williams worked the count full against Scott and connected on a swing that made everybody in Gator Nation hold their breath. The ball seemed destined to sail over the right center field fence for a game-tying homer. Instead, it landed harmlessly in Fabian’s glove about a foot or two shy of the wall. Scott escaped the inning with a strikeout and a groundout.
As it turned out, the sigh of relief was only temporary. Auburn’s big inning was only delayed by about 20 minutes.
Howell opened the bottom of the seventh by launching a hanging slider from Scott about halfway up the Green Monster-like wall in left field for a double. Scott seemed poised to wiggle his way out of yet another mess when he got Ward to ground out and struck out Bryson Ware.
Instead, he hanged another slider, this time to Bliss. Bliss unloaded on it and sent in over the tall wall in left for a two-run homer that tied the game at two.
Miller and Woley followed with singles, but Scott preserved the tie by striking out Williams.
“I thought Christian threw the ball well,” O’Sullivan said. “I thought their hitters probably did a nice job sitting on his slider there. He just really hung that one pitch, but, other than that, he pitched good.”
The Tigers removed Owen from the game after seven innings and 110 pitches. He gave up seven hits and struck out seven Gators without issuing a walk.
Trace Bright replaced Owen and struck out a couple of batters in a scoreless eighth. In the bottom half, the Tigers once again threatened when Hill singled with one out. Pinch runner Josh Hall stole second with two outs, and Ward was walked intentionally. Scott froze Ware with a fastball on the outside corner to end the inning.
Kendrick Calilao drew a one-out walk from Bright in the ninth. He was replaced by pinch runner Brock Edge. That turned out to be a smart move.
Colby Halter smashed a 1-0 fastball deep into center field. Howell sprinted back as fast as he could, but the ball landed just past his outstretched glove. He collided with the wall, which allowed Edge to race home for the go-ahead run and Halter to make it to third for a triple.
Josh Rivera provided an insurance run with a single to right field that plated Halter.
Leftwich struck out Bliss to begin the bottom of the ninth. Miller followed by scorching a ball into left center field. Young somehow sprinted to the ball and made the overhead catch that Howell couldn’t make moments earlier. Woley grounded out to second to end the game.
Young led UF’s offensive attack by going 3-for-5, and Rivera also turned in a multi-hit game. Miller led the Tigers with three hits, while Bliss, Woley and Hill all had two hits.
Friday’s win was huge for the Gators. This is a series that they have to win if they want to sneak back into contention in the SEC and make a run at hosting a regional. They also took another step forward as a team as far as finding a way to overcome adversity on the road and be one pitch better than the other team.
Of course, they haven’t accomplished anything yet. The Gators’ goal every weekend is to win the series, and a road sweep would be ginormous if they’re able to get it.
O’Sullivan hopes that the momentum they generated with their strong finish on Friday will carry over into the rest of the series.
“It’s just one game,” he said. “You just hope that you learn as the season goes on. Early in the year, we just didn’t play very well on the road. Like I said, this is one game, but, hopefully, like I told the players at the end there, hopefully, this is a win on the road that kind of gets us going a little bit more.”