Gators shut out Wildcats for fifth straight win

The Gators kept the momentum going on Tuesday night at Condron Ballpark, defeating Bethune-Cookman 7-0. They’ve now won five consecutive games and seven of their last eight to do wonders for their postseason resume.

The story of the game was UF’s pitching. The trio of Tyler Nesbitt, Nick Ficarrotta and Blake Purnell combined to give up just five hits and strike out 11 batters to record the Gators’ third shutout of the season.

“[Nesbitt] threw the ball well tonight,” coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “A lot of early contact and threw strikes when we needed. I thought the pitching overall was really good tonight.

“That’s about as good as Blake’s looked in a while, too. His sinker was sharp tonight. I know it was only one inning, but his stuff looked really good. From a pitching standpoint, I thought we were sharp tonight.”

Sterlin Thompson and Josh Rivera paced the offense, as they were the only two players to notch multiple hits from either team. Thompson also turned in the only multiple-RBI game with two, while Wyatt Langford walked four times and smacked his 16th home run of the year.

Nesbitt made the start for just the second time this season and gave up four hits in a season-high four innings. He wasn’t as dominant as the stats might suggest, though, as he walked two batters in the first inning and had to strand six runners on the basepaths.

“He settled in and made some pitches when he needed to,” O’Sullivan said. “Every time out is a new experience for him because it’s been a long journey for him to come back from Tommy John [surgery].”

Whatever Nesbitt lacked in style, Ficarrotta more than made up for it. He had one of the best relief outings that you’ll ever see. He threw just 34 pitches in four innings, an impressive feat by itself. What’s even more incredible is that 29 of those pitches were strikes. That’s greater than an 85-percent strike rate.

“His slider looked as good as it’s been all year long,” O’Sullivan said. “He changed his grip on the slider, and it was down. He threw a lot of pitches down in the strike zone at the knees. When you get a lot of groundballs like he was getting, that’s about as good as you can pitch. I don’t care if it’s a Tuesday night or a Friday night in our league; 34 pitches over four is pretty good.”

Ficarrotta struck out six Wildcats, and the only hit that he gave up was a sharply hit groundball that took a tough hop on Rivera at short.

“We put a lot of emphasis on getting the leadoff guy,” he said. “So, you obviously want to go out right away and throw strikes. So, just keep pounding the zone.”

It’s been a challenging season for Ficarrotta. After the fall, the coaches deciding to drop his arm slot down and make him more of a side-armer. They also converted his curveball into a slider. He enjoyed some great success early in the season using that approach.

However, his effectiveness waned about a month into the season, so they switched him back to a more conventional pitching style. He then gave up three runs in a third of an inning at Georgia and five runs without recording an out against Arkansas.

He seems to finally feel comfortable again, as he’s given up just one earned run in his last nine innings across four outings.

“I came in throwing a curveball, and we changed it to a slider pretty early on,” Ficarrotta said. “It’s been a work in progress ever since, especially since I changed my arm slot, and then I changed it back. I’ve always been trying to adjust, throwing flat-grounds before the game, throwing off the mound, trying to work on it.”

Purnell needed just six pitches, all strikes, to set the Wildcats down in order in the ninth and finish off the win.

Meanwhile, UF’s offense started off the game hot to provide the pitchers with the only runs that they needed in the first inning.

Bethune-Cookman (21-27, 15-9 SWAC) starter Alec Mendez walked Langford on four pitches to start the game. Thompson followed by singling up the middle. Langford successfully went from first to third on the play, and Thompson took a wide turn around first as the throw came in to third. BCU shortstop Matthew Garcia tried to throw Thompson out while he was retreating to first, and the throw got away. Langford scored, and Thompson made it to second without a throw.

A groundout by Jud Fabian advanced Thompson to third, and he came in to score two batters later when Jac Caglianone delivered a two-out single to center field.

Florida (30-18, 11-13 SEC) tacked on another run in the second inning without recording a hit. Two walks and a hit by pitch loaded the bases with nobody out. Gabriel Perez entered out of the bullpen and walked Thompson to force home a run and make it 3-0.

Perez settled down after that shaky start, however, and miraculously didn’t give up another run in the inning by striking out Fabian and getting BT Riopelle to ground into a double play.

For a while, it looked like that might be the only offense that the Gators got. Gabriel White and Amir Asghar combined to hold them hitless from the fourth through sixth innings.

Then, Langford finally got something to hit to lead off the seventh. He launched a 1-0 offering from Derrius York way past the Wildcats’ bullpen in left-center field to make it 4-0.

UF added three more runs against Brenton Fisher in the eighth on Rivera’s RBI single through the left side, Colby Halter’s sacrifice fly to left and Thompson’s RBI double to right field.

“It feels great,” Langford said. “We’re getting confidence, and we’re playing really well right now. So, it’s kind of exciting.”

A couple of weeks ago, the Gators were 6-12 in SEC play and in serious danger of not making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in O’Sullivan’s 15 seasons. Since then, O’Sullivan has stressed the importance of trying to win the game at hand with his players instead of worrying about series wins or sweeps.

The players also had some meetings where they talked about how they were in a now-or-never type of situation.

“We obviously realize that you’re never going to play with the same team again,” Ficarrotta said. “You’ve got guys that are going to leave, guys that are going to get drafted. So, you always want to keep the season going as long as you can, and we neared a point to where it was kind of looking either way, and we said, ‘We’ve got to turn this around. We’ve got to keep playing together.’

“Obviously, you make friends, you make relationships, you want to keep playing as long as possible.”

Whatever buttons have been pushed have certainly worked. The Gators are playing their best baseball of the season at the most important part of the season.

They’ll try to keep things rolling this weekend when they take on Missouri in Columbia.

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.