The No. 10 Gators just keep getting the job done.
On Tuesday, the Gators fell behind Stetson early, exploded in the middle innings and withstood a late rally to defeat the Hatters 9-6 at Florida Ballpark. Florida (31-13, 13-8 SEC) has now won 11 of its last 13 games to leap back into the hosting and national seed discussion as it pertains to the NCAA Tournament, which begins exactly one month from Tuesday night.
Catcher Nathan Hickey said the team is riding high after the big series win over No. 2 Vanderbilt last weekend.
“It gave us a lot of confidence,” he said. “We’ve always been good. We just needed kind of like that push. Like, ‘This is the real deal. We are the real deal.’ So, hopefully, we keep carrying this with us as we go on.”
Sterlin Thompson led the way against Stetson with three hits and an RBI. Jacob Young and Hickey both collected two hits, while Hickey and Kris Armstrong tied for the team lead with two RBI. On the mound, Trey Van Der Weide and David Luethje combined for 4 2/3 scoreless innings to give the offense time to distance the Gators on the scoreboard.
The Hatters (23-18, 9-6 Atlantic Sun) took advantage of another poor start by highly touted freshman lefty Timmy Manning to take an early lead. Andrew MacNeil and Hernen Sardinas both blasted fastballs well beyond the right field wall for a 2-0 advantage in the first inning.
Manning walked Eric Foggo to lead off the second but got out of the inning with a strikeout and a double play.
UF’s offense seized the momentum in the bottom half of the frame against Hatters starter Bret Neilan. Kirby McMullen led off with a walk and scored on a double into the right center field gap off of the bat of Thompson. Colby Halter tied the game with a two-out double to center field, and Young gave his team the lead with a first-pitch single to left.
Manning once again worked himself into a jam in the third. Jorge Arenas singled, and Kyle Ball and Brandon Hylton walked with one out. Coach Kevin O’Sullivan jumped out of the first-base dugout and pulled Manning from the game.
Manning surrendered three hits and walked three batters in 2 1/3 innings. His earned run average now sits at 6.60, and he’s averaging nearly a walk per inning pitched. Hickey said Manning is going through some necessary growing pains this spring.
“He’s young,” he said. “He’s a freshman. He’s got the off-speed pitches. He’s got the life on the fastball. He’s going to be good here in the next couple years. He’s just got to figure out his accuracy and what to do in certain counts. Sometimes, he gets a bit wild. I know that hurts him a little bit, but, in the next couple years, he’s going to be really good.”
Trey Van Der Weide replaced Manning on the mound and gave up a two-out RBI single to Banks Griffith, though Young threw out Ball at the plate to preserve the tie.
Van Der Weide escaped another mess in the fourth, this one of his own creation. Connor Kehl and Christian Pregent stroked consecutive one-out singles. Van Der Weide struck out Arenas and MacNeil to end the inning.
The bottom of the fourth saw the Hatters take their turn to give away cheap runs. Former Gator Nick Long threw back-to-back fastballs that narrowly missed Young’s head, which caused tempers to flare in UF’s dugout and warnings being issued to both teams. Stetson coach Steve Trimper opted to defuse the situation by removing Long from the game in favor of Anthony DeFabbia.
While DeFabbia wasn’t as dangerous as Long, he wasn’t any more accurate with his pitches. He finished off the walk to Young, walked Hickey and uncorked a wild pitch to advance them both into scoring position. After another walk to Jud Fabian loaded the bases, Armstrong lofted a sacrifice fly to left field to give the Gators the lead.
UF busted the game wide open in the bottom of the fifth. Thompson led off with a single, stole second and advanced to third on a balk. Josh Rivera plated him with a groundball single through the drawn-in infield. After Halter reached on a fielder’s choice, Young dropped down a well-placed bunt down the third base line. DeFabbia picked up the ball and fired a dart to first. The umpire initially called Young out, but replay showed that Young easily beat the throw.
That overturned call proved crucial when Hickey smashed a full-count offering into the right center field gap to score two runs.
Jud Fabian popped the first pitch he saw from new pitcher Austin Amaral high into shallow left field. The left fielder overran the ball, and it fell for an RBI double to extend UF’s lead to 8-3.
Luethje took over to start the sixth and gave up just one baserunner via a walk in his two innings.
Ryan Cabarcas got the ball to start the eighth, and it couldn’t have gone much worse. Hylton and Sardinas singled, and Griffith walked. O’Sullivan replaced him with Christian Scott before he ever recorded an out.
Foggo singled off of Scott’s leg for an RBI, but Scott did an incredible job of limiting the damage to just the one run. He struck out Nick DiPonzio, got Pregent to ground back to the mound for an out at the plate and retired Arenas via a flyout to end the inning.
Armstrong continued his torrid stretch in the bottom of the inning with a home run that just snuck onto the berm in right field. He’s now eight for his last 20 with three home runs.
Scott allowed MacNeil and Sardinas to launch their second no-doubters of the night in the ninth inning but eventually closed the door to finish off the win.
The Gators look to keep the momentum going this Thursday when they open a series at Kentucky. Florida sits just one game behind Vanderbilt and Tennessee for the SEC East lead. Kentucky, meanwhile, is considered an NCAA Tournament bubble team and would love to beef up its resume with a series victory over a top-10 club.
For the Wildcats to do so, they’re going to have to go through a team that’s clicking on all cylinders.
“We’re more intense in how we play, and we care for each other,” Thompson said. “After every [at bat], we’re always, like, there for each other.
“We weren’t really uncomfortable throughout the game, on every aspect of baseball. We have pitching. Defensively, offensively, we’re doing real well, and I feel like we’re coming together as a team, and it’s really nice to see so far.”