Sunday’s doubleheader at Auburn left a weird feeling in the minds of the Gators and their fans.
On one hand, you never want to complain about winning an SEC road series, especially when that’s something that you hadn’t done all season.
However, the process they used to accomplish that series win was far from a thing of beauty. No. 15 Florida had a golden opportunity to sweep the Tigers and move within one game of first place in the SEC East.
Instead, the Gators blew a 6-2 lead en route to a 10-8 loss in game one of the day. They blew another lead in the finale but fought back to grab a 6-4 win. Per SEC rules, both games were seven-inning affairs.
“We were fortunate today,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “Obviously, we didn’t pitch as well as we’d have liked to in the first game, but I thought we swung the bats fairly well all weekend.”
Auburn (17-20, 3-15 SEC) wasted no time in jumping on Tommy Mace in game one. Ryan Bliss led off the bottom of the first by reaching on an error by third baseman Colby Halter on a slow roller. Two pitches later, Tyler Miller launched a missile well over the right field fence for a 2-0 lead.
Tigers starter Richard Fitts also got off to a fast start, allowing just one baserunner via a walk in his first two innings. His prosperity didn’t last long.
Josh Rivera led off the top of the third with a line drive home run to straightaway center. Jordan Carrion and Jacob Young walked, and Nathan Hickey tied the game with a chopper through the right side. Jud Fabian gave the Gators a 3-2 lead with a one-out double into the left field corner.
Just like that, Fitts’ day was over. Carson Skipper replaced him and allowed another run to score on Kris Armstrong’s sacrifice fly.
UF (28-12, 11-7) tacked on a couple of more runs in the fourth. Rivera led off with a double and advanced to third on a wild pitch. Young reached on a fielding error by Bliss at short, though Rivera was unable to score on the play. Young then stole second. A groundout by Hickey and a double by McMullen extended the Gators’ lead to 6-2.
Rather than putting up a zero and keeping the momentum in his dugout, Mace gave up a pair of rebound runs in the bottom of the inning. Kason Howell doubled and Ryan Dyal walked to put two runners on with two outs. Bliss singled to right field to score a run, and Auburn cut the lead to 6-4 when Miller reached on Halter’s second error of the game.
Then came the fifth inning, and the floodgates opened. The Tigers scored six runs on seven hits in the frame to not only take the lead but seize control of the game for good.
Steven Williams got things started by crushing a 1-0 slider over the right field wall for a home run. That spelled the end of the day for Mace. He gave up three earned runs on six hits in four innings. He walked two batters and struck out just one.
Jack Leftwich took over on the mound. His streak of nine consecutive hitless and scoreless innings looks like ancient history now.
Brody Moore singled on a groundball that took a difficult hop on Carrion. Cam Hill followed by lofting what seemed like a routine fly ball that just never came down until it was beyond the Green Monster wall in left field for a two-run shot that gave the Tigers the lead.
Leftwich hit Howell with a pitch. Josh Hall singled through the left side on a hit and run and advanced to second on the throw to third base. Bliss hit a popup that was placed perfectly between Rivera, Armstrong and Sterlin Thompson for an RBI. Miller and Rankin Woley stroked more conventional singles to make the lead 10-6.
Leftwich eventually escaped the nightmare inning with a pair of flyouts. He was charged with five earned runs on six hits in one inning.
Tigers reliever Joseph Gonzalez faced the minimum in the fifth and struck out the side in the sixth to earn the win.
The Gators scored a pair of runs in the seventh and brought the tying run to the plate, but Will Morrison struck out Halter swinging to pick up the save.
Armstrong and Rivera paced Florida’s offense in game one with two hits and an RBI apiece.
Auburn once again jumped out to an early lead in the rubber game. Bliss led off with a single off of Hunter Barco. Miller and Williams walked to load the bases with one out. Moore opened the scoring with a groundball to Armstrong at first that was hit just slow enough to prevent the Gators from turning a double play.
Bryson Ware smoked the first pitch he saw from Barco, but Halter made an incredible diving stop and threw him out to keep things from getting out of hand early.
Meanwhile, Tigers lefty starter Peyton Glavine kept the Gators off balance with his changeup and breaking ball that made his upper-80s fastball look 1ike 100 miles per hour to UF’s batters. He gave up just one hit and struck out two batters in his first three innings.
“Glavine gave us some issues early with his offspeed, and he was locating his changeup,” O’Sullivan said. “He would just throw breaking balls to keep us off his fastball. He did a really nice job.”
The Gators cracked the code on him in the fourth. Hickey crushed a first-pitch fastball to right field for a game-tying home run. McMullen followed by lining a first-pitch single into left field. Fabian muscled a seemingly well-located 0-2 changeup over the big wall in left to give his team a 3-1 lead.
Once again, prosperity was like a poison to UF’s pitching staff. Barco fell behind Williams and Moore and gave up singles. Ware singled up the middle to load the bases with nobody out. To Barco’s credit, he didn’t implode and only gave up a couple of runs on a pair of groundouts. Still, Auburn had managed to tie the game and kill whatever good feelings were permeating throughout the Gators’ dugout.
Barco bounced back to toss a 1-2-3 inning in the fifth, but the Gators struggled to get anything going against Tigers reliever Mason Barnett. He struck out four of the first six batters he faced. As was the case with Glavine, however, the Gators eventually made their adjustments.
McMullen and Fabian singled with one out in the sixth and moved into scoring position on a wild pitch.
UF then took the lead on a wacky play. Thompson grounded a pitch back to the mound. Barnett gloved it and appeared to have McMullen out by a mile at the plate. Instead, he failed to set his feet and threw it to the backstop. McMullen scored, and Thompson got caught in a rundown between first and second. Fabian danced around third, trying to time up a break for the plate. The Tigers threw behind him and got him out sliding back into third base.
Barco conceded a one-out bunt single to Moore in the bottom of the inning to end his day. He gave up three earned runs on five hits in 5 1/3 innings. He walked three and struck out three.
“I thought Hunter kept us in the ballgame,” O’Sullivan said. “A couple things pitching-wise – I know I sound like a broken record – we have got to figure out a way to not give up runs after we score.
“Those types of things, we’ve got to clean up. I know we keep talking about it, but the rebound runs after we score, it’s really hard to keep momentum in our dugout. And then we’re spending way too much time on the bottom half of the order.”
Christian Scott replaced Barco and got a flyout and a groundout to preserve the lead.
Florida tacked on a couple of insurance runs in the seventh that proved very beneficial. Halter and Rivera greeted Auburn’s best reliever, Cody Greenhill, with a double and a single, respectively. Young and Hickey singled through the left side to extend the lead to 6-3.
Things got a little scary in the bottom of the seventh. Scott plunked Howell with a pitch and was removed from the game due to a potential blister on his throwing hand. Carrion took the mound and walked Judd Ward. He then moved back to shortstop, and O’Sullivan turned to Trey Van Der Weide.
Van Der Weide allowed one run to score on a groundout but recorded the final three outs without any further drama to earn his second save.
“He did a really nice job,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s not ideal for him to come in [with] first and second with a three-run lead and nobody out, but I think getting Bliss to fly out to right was a huge point of that inning. And then, obviously, he did a really nice job with the next two hitters.”
Hickey, McMullen and Fabian all collected two hits in the finale, and Hickey and Fabian also drove in two runs.
Fabian went 4-for-10 with two home runs and five RBI over the weekend. He’s heating up after what was a dreadful couple of weeks for him.
“He’s been really seeing the ball really well the last few weeks, and I don’t think he’s guessing as much as maybe a month ago or so,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s more relaxed, and he’s seeing it really well. Obviously, our offense is going to be only as good as some of our better hitters like him and Hickey and Jacob Young, Kirby and Sterlin Thompson and those guys. So, offensively, it was a really good weekend for us.”
With the series victory, the Gators now find themselves in the exact same spot that they began the weekend in – one game behind Tennessee and two behind Vanderbilt for the East lead.
The Gators are happy to get the win, even if there were some major complications and frustrations along the way.