It had been a rough nine days for the Gators’ offense. They managed just one run in the finale of the Georgia series. They followed that up by striking out 44 times in three games at Arkansas. In their opening round defeat of Kentucky in the SEC Tournament on Tuesday, they mustered just five hits.
To say that they broke out of their collective slump against Mississippi State on Wednesday would be a ginormous understatement. They beat the tar out of the third-seeded Bulldogs.
Sixth-seeded Florida racked up 18 hits and produced a five-run inning and a four-run inning. By the end of the third inning, they had put nine runs and 12 hits on the scoreboard. Hunter Barco held up his end of the bargain on the mound, and the Gators beat the Bulldogs 13-1 in just seven innings due to the mercy rule.
UF (37-19, 17-13 SEC) will next play the winner of the Alabama-Tennessee game on Thursday around 5:30 p.m.
“I think it was probably our most complete game that we’ve played in a while, obviously,” Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “Offensively, every starter got a hit. Kris Armstrong had a really big at bat there in the second. Jud [Fabian], I thought, was seeing the ball really well today. Sterlin Thompson had some really good at bats. Josh Rivera had four hits. We got production from everybody up and down the lineup. And then I thought we played pretty good defense for the most part, and Hunter Barco was outstanding against a really good lineup.”
The Gators jumped out to a lead in the first inning for the second day in a row. Jacob Young led off with a hustle double to left center off of MSU starter Brandon Smith. Nathan Hickey followed with a single to right, and Fabian walked to load the bases with nobody out.
Smith bounced back to get Armstrong to fly out to shallow center and strike out Kendrick Calilao. However, his first pitch to Thompson got away from catcher Logan Tanner to put the Gators on the board.
Thompson grounded out to first to end the inning, so the Gators only got one run out of that bases-loaded situation. Things felt eerily similar to their last four games at that point.
Mississippi State (40-14, 20-10) tied the game back up in their first at bat. SEC Player of the Year Tanner Allen scooped a well-located slider from Barco into the right center field gap for a one-out double. Luke Hancock scored him with a two-out single to right.
As it turned out, that would be the last time this was a competitive game.
Rivera led off the second with a single to left center. Mac Guscette hit a slow dribbler up the middle that beat the shifted infield for a hit that moved Rivera to third. Young reclaimed the lead for his team with a sacrifice fly to center. As they did in the first, Hickey singled to right and Fabian walked to load the bases with two outs.
This time, Armstrong came through, lining a 1-2 breaking ball from Smith into right field to score two more runs and make it a 4-1 game.
Florida busted the game wide open in the third. Thompson led off with a home run to right center field. Rivera singled, and reliever Cameron Tullar walked Cory Acton. Guscette moved both runners into scoring position with a perfectly executed sacrifice bunt down the third base line. Young singled up the middle to score both runners.
Hickey singled for the third time in as many innings to left field, and Armstrong picked up his third and fourth RBI of the game with a double to left that made it 9-1.
“Just kind of being aggressive, being the aggressor and not letting the pitchers get to us and get into deep counts,” Armstrong said. “I think that’s what we did really well today was hitting in early counts and doing damage at that time.”
Meanwhile, Barco made some adjustments after giving up the run in the first. The Bulldogs’ batters were uber aggressive and sitting on his slider in that inning. He countered by jamming the lefties with fastballs inside.
“Personally, I didn’t feel like I had my best stuff today, but I had to go out there and compete, and that’s what I did,” Barco said. “Not many strikeouts today but a lot of weak contact, and that’s all you can ask for.”
The Gators added their final four runs of the day in the seventh off of KC Hunt, MSU’s fifth pitcher of the game. Hickey got things started by reaching on a fielding error by third baseman Tanner Leggett. Fabian and Armstrong singled to load the bases. Calilao brought in one run with a sacrifice fly to center, and Thompson added two more with a double down the right field line. Rivera finished the scoring with an RBI single to left.
Those four runs in the top of the seventh activated the mercy rule and allowed Barco to throw a complete game and save the Gators’ perilously thin bullpen for the rest of the week. Barco gave up just four hits and only struck out two batters, but he also didn’t issue any walks.
“It was awesome,” Armstrong said. “I think we finally clicked today and started playing as a team. Barco pitched his ass off, and I think we all hit really well. Playing for each other more than ourselves this game, for sure.
“After that Arkansas series – it wasn’t too fun for us – we kind of got together and talked about how we need to play more as a team and play together and not just doing it for ourselves but for something bigger. Trying to play the last game of the season for sure.”
Rivera led the offensive onslaught with four hits, while Armstrong and Hickey had three hits and Young and Thompson had two. Armstrong drove in four runs, while Young and Thompson each drove in three runs.
“Baseball’s a game of momentum,” O’Sullivan said. “We just kind of got on a roll early, and some guys were feeling really good about their swings. I’m just really pleased with how we played the last two days because, obviously, it could’ve gone one of two directions after the weekend at Arkansas.
“We faced some really good arms today from Mississippi State, and our guys were just having really quality, competitive at bats, and, hopefully, we can continue this momentum into tomorrow.”