Gators’ offense wakes up in win over Arkansas

Florida entered Friday morning’s SEC Tournament elimination game against Arkansas in the midst of a significant team-wide slump at the plate. They had scored just three runs on 10 hits in their last 26 innings, with one of those runs being unearned. They had struck out 32 times during that stretch.

Following their mercy-rule loss to Texas A&M on Thursday, coach Kevin O’Sullivan stressed the importance of his team putting up more competitive at bats. He also mixed up the lineup a bit for Friday’s game, dropping Jud Fabian down to the five-hole and moving Ty Evans up to the cleanup spot for the first time.

O’Sullivan pushed all of the right buttons. The Gators’ offense erupted for seven runs on 10 hits in the first six innings of the game. Three of those hits were home runs, something that also hadn’t happened during the 26-inning stretch of ineptitude. Six players recorded at least one hit, and four players registered multi-hit games.

The early offense, combined with a strong start on the mound by Nick Pogue, allowed No. 7 seed UF to defeat the No. 3 seed Razorbacks, 7-5, at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.

“I thought we were much better today offensively than [Thursday], obviously,” O’Sullivan said. “We got a lot of production from a lot of different guys in the lineup, which was good to see, and tried to use the short game a little bit more today to kind of get a little bit more offense going.

“I think just maybe take a little pressure off and maybe moving somebody down just a couple spots and moving somebody up a couple spots may make a difference. Sometimes, it works out, and, sometimes, it doesn’t, but, today, it maybe took a little pressure off some of the hitters, and, obviously, our approach was better today than it was [Thursday].”

Jac Caglianone was the biggest star of the game for the Gators (37-21). He went 2-for-3 and drove in three runs, including his fifth homer since burning his redshirt in late April.

Fabian excelled in his new spot in the lineup, going 2-for-3 with his 21st long ball of the year. He had been 0-for-9 with six strikeouts over the previous three games.

BT Riopelle went 2-for-4, and Colby Halter went 2-for-3 with a homer and two RBI out of the nine-hole.

“We know what we can do at the plate,” Halter said. “We’ve got a bunch of really good bats in the lineup. Baseball’s a game [where] you can’t overcook it. We’ve been pretty consistent all year at the plate, and we obviously had two games where we didn’t score a ton of runs, but we didn’t freak out or anything and kind of just got back to ourselves today.”

After limiting the Gators to just one hit and no runs in seven innings during his start in the regular-season series, Arkansas starter Connor Noland picked up where he left off in the bottom of the first. He retired the Gators in order, punctuated by a strikeout of Riopelle.

Florida finally figured out how to hit his breaking ball in the innings that followed.

Evans led off the second by pulling a hanging 3-2 slider into left field for a single. Fabian lined a 2-2 breaking ball down the left-field line for a double. Perhaps sensing that the Gators were sitting on his breaking ball, Noland fired in a first-pitch fastball at the knees to Caglianone. Caglianone hit it sharply back up the middle to drive in a pair of runs.

The scored stayed that way until the fifth inning. Noland threw an 0-1 breaking ball on the outer part of the plate to Caglianone. Caglianone was a bit off balance, but he muscled the ball over the right-center field wall and off of the scoreboard for a home run.

Three batters later, Halter turned on a slider low and in and lined it over the right-center wall.

“He’s a good pitcher,” Halter said. “He’s got a really good slider. Our game plan was just see the ball up a little bit and try to take advantage of mistakes. You definitely learn from seeing one guy earlier in the season.”

Noland walked Wyatt Langford on four pitches to end his outing prematurely. Evan Taylor entered out of the bullpen for a left-on-left matchup with Sterlin Thompson. He successfully jammed Thompson with an inside pitch, but the blooper landed just beyond the second baseman’s reach for a single. Riopelle made it 5-0 by going the opposite way for a double to left field.

Meanwhile, Pogue dominated through the first five innings, giving up just two hits and two walks while striking out eight batters. He did find himself in a lot of deep counts, however, which elevated his pitch count to 84 after just five innings.

O’Sullivan tried to squeeze another inning out of him in the sixth, but it didn’t work out. Pogue threw just three pitches in the inning, and they resulted in back-to-back monster home runs by Cayden Wallace and Michael Turner.

“He really pitched to both sides of the plate with his fastball today,” O’Sullivan said. “I thought his changeup was outstanding both to left-handers and right-handers, and that’s kind of the equalizer for him against right-handers. You don’t see many right-handed pitchers that have the ability to throw right-on-right changeups. I thought his slider was good enough to throw it just enough to keep them off balance.”

Blake Purnell replaced Pogue on the mound and retired the next three batters to halt the Razorbacks’ momentum.

UF got those two runs back quickly against Brady Tygart in the bottom of the inning. Fabian led off by destroying a 2-1 curveball that floated over the middle of the plate. It landed just over the left-field wall.

A pair of hit batters put two runners in scoring position for Halter. Halter fouled off a couple of 2-2 pitches by Zebulon Vermillion before hitting a sharp groundball that snuck into center field for an RBI to make it 7-2.

“We always talk about that as a team, just picking each other up,” Halter said. “When they go out and score, we want to help our pitcher out as an offense and go out and score and give them the confidence right back to keep throwing strikes and stuff like that. It’s really important.”

Ryan Slater took over on the mound in the seventh after Purnell surrendered a leadoff single to Robert Moore. He retired the next three batters in order and then worked around a leadoff error in the eighth to put up a pair of zeroes.

Arkansas (38-18) made things a little scary in the ninth. One run scored on a passed ball by Riopelle, and Braydon Webb launched a two-run homer to put the potential tying run in the on-deck circle. After O’Sullivan went to the mound and chatted with Slater, he got Wallace to ground out to second to end the game.

The Gators will be back in action on Saturday morning at 10:30. They’ll play the loser of the Alabama-Texas A&M contest that is scheduled for later on Friday in another elimination game. Should the Gators win that game, they would play again in the semifinals later on Saturday.

Ethan Hughes
Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and also wrote for for two years before joining Gator Country in 2021. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars. You can follow him on Twitter @ethanhughes97.