There are two sides to the 2021 UF baseball team. There’s the team that beat Miami on opening night and looked impressive in a sweep of Florida A&M. Then there’s the sloppy and unenergetic team that lost the final two games of the Miami series as well as contests against Florida Atlantic, Jacksonville and Florida State.
Following the beatdown at the hands of the Seminoles on Tuesday night, coach Kevin O’Sullivan challenged his team to play with more consistent energy and focus moving forward. The 30-game SEC schedule is a grind, and they can’t afford to take a day off mentally if they’re going to achieve the things that they expect to.
“I just think we were out of sorts a bit,” O’Sullivan said. “We had some talks this week. You’ve got to play with an edge, and we just did not do that on Tuesday night, and we didn’t do that consistently up unto this point. I’ve been very frank and honest with them. Things have got to change, and there’s a certain way you have to play to win in the SEC, and they have to trust me on this.”
Whatever he said, it sure as heck worked. The No. 5 Gators turned in their best all-around performance of the season in Thursday night’s 13-4 spanking of Texas A&M (15-5) in the SEC opener at Florida Ballpark.
As it so often does in what is regarded as the nation’s premier conference, it all began with a dominant start on the mound by Tommy Mace. Mace threw seven innings and scattered six hits. He gave up just two earned runs and struck out 11 Aggies with no walks.
“Tommy was really sharp tonight,” O’Sullivan said. “His ’pen, I could tell, on Monday was really sharp, and he was focused on what he needed to do and executed a ton of pitches tonight and set the tone for us. I’m really proud of the way he pitched because, obviously, coming off last week, he wasn’t as sharp, but he was determined and obviously did exactly what we needed him to do.”
He set the Aggies down in order three times. Aside from a solo home run by Ty Coleman in the fourth inning, his only blemish on the night came in the sixth inning when his defense let him down. Ray Alejo led off the inning by reaching on a fielding error by third baseman Kirby McMullen. A slip by left fielder Jacob Young led to an RBI bloop double for Austin Bost. Coleman picked up another RBI on a softly hit groundball up the middle that snuck under the glove of shortstop Josh Rivera. A sacrifice fly by Ryan Targac made it a three-run inning, but only one of the runs was earned.
Mace exited the inning with 89 pitches. He battled through an 18-pitch seventh inning to squeak out another frame. That could prove beneficial for the rest of the weekend.
“You only have so many bullets in the bullpen,” O’Sullivan said. “Certainly, it’s not ideal to use, for example, [Franco] Aleman and [Christian] Scott in the same game if they’ve got to get length because, obviously, that limits your bullpen the next day. Tommy did exactly what we needed him to do.”
Mace entered this season with nine as his career high for strikeouts in a game. He’s now struck out 11 batters in a game twice this season.
“I think just my stuff has gotten better throughout time, so, obviously, the strikeouts are going to go up a little more,” Mace said. “But other than that, there’s no goal of trying to hit a certain strikeout amount or a strikeout goal. It’s just trying to just get outs and stay efficient. I think that was my problem the last couple weeks is I just wasn’t really efficient getting first-pitch outs or getting three-pitch outs and things like that. So, I’m happy that it happened tonight so I could go deep in the ballgame and still have those strikeouts.”
Offensively, the Gators (14-5) were powered by the bottom of their order. Freshman catcher Mac Guscette went 4-for-5 with an RBI, while freshman second baseman Colby Halter collected two hits, including a mammoth two-run homer in the bottom of the fourth. Those aren’t bad ways to begin your SEC career.
“Obviously, coming in, I was kind of nervous, but, as the game went on, I felt more and more comfortable,” Guscette said. “Obviously, catching Tommy, knowing he’s been through this kind of helped me. Like, he talked me through it, and a lot of the older guys just had my back, so it was pretty easy. The whole team was behind me.”
The freshmen weren’t the only ones who shined, however. Nathan Hickey went 3-for-4 with an RBI, and Jud Fabian recorded three hits, including an opposite-field three-run homer in the bottom of the sixth. The Gators pounded out 16 hits as a team.
O’Sullivan was pleased with the quality of the at bats his team turned in and how they performed in clutch situations. They drove in six runs with two outs and were 8-for-15 with runners in scoring position. They battled with two strikes and got into Texas A&M’s bullpen in the fourth inning.
The feeling within the program couldn’t be any different than it was two days ago. Now the Gators have momentum and are feeling good about themselves following a league-opening butt-kicking.
But we’ve seen this movie before. If the Gators hold true to form, you can expect a disheartening and befuddling loss on Friday or Saturday. They’ve got to maintain what they did on Thursday night for another 29 conference games instead of riding this rollercoaster. O’Sullivan is optimistic.
“The dugout was better,” he said. “It’s like a totally different team. It’s amazing. 48 hours. They had fun tonight. They played with some energy. They played with a pep in their step. The players like to use the word ‘swag.’ I don’t know what other way to explain that, but they played like a team that we usually have. We’ve been trying to find our identity, and I think tonight was obviously a start in the right direction.”