For the third day in a row, the Gators found themselves in a tight battle with No. 1 Arkansas heading into the late innings.
For the third day in a row, bullpen struggles and an inability to get one or two clutch hits caused the game to get away from them.
The Razorbacks exploded for seven runs in the seventh inning to defeat the No. 9 Gators 9-3 and sweep the series on Saturday afternoon at Baum-Walker Stadium.
“Credit to Arkansas; they played really well this weekend,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “Kind of fell apart there in the bottom of the seventh, and they had the big inning and scored seven runs. The bottom line is they just outplayed us this weekend, and they outpitched us, they outhit us.”
Both starting pitchers brought their “A” game. UF’s Franco Aleman opened the game by hanging three straight zeroes, including a pair of 1-2-3 innings. The Gators, meanwhile, put runners in scoring position in the first three innings against Jaxon Wiggins but couldn’t score.
The Razorbacks (42-10, 22-8 SEC) opened the scoring in the bottom of the fourth when Brady Slavens crushed an opposite-field two-run homer to left.
The Gators (35-19, 17-13) got one of those runs back in the top of the next inning. Sterlin Thompson led off with a single off of reliever Connor Noland. Thompson stole second, and Cory Acton moved him to third with an infield single with one out. Jacob Young chopped a slow grounder to Cullen Smith at third that was good enough to score Thompson.
UF scratched another run across in the sixth to tie the game at two. Heston Tole drilled Jud Fabian with a pitch, and Kris Armstrong followed with a single through the right side that advanced Fabian to third. Kendrick Calilao grounded into a double play, but the tying run crossed the plate on the play.
Meanwhile, Aleman recovered from the bomb he surrendered in the fourth, retiring eight in a row. That streak ended when Smith singled back up the middle with one out in the seventh. Ethan Bates followed with a perfectly placed ground ball between first and second that advanced Smith to third. Jalen Battles did the exact same thing between short and third to give the Razorbacks a 3-2 lead. Aleman hit Dylan Leach with a pitch to load the bases.
With Aleman clearly running out of gas, O’Sullivan made a move to the bullpen and brought in lefty Jordan Butler for just his seventh appearance of the year.
That’s when the wheels fell off.
Butler uncorked a wild pitch to make it 4-2. Then Charlie Welch blasted a pitch high off of the wall in left to drive in two runs. After Butler plunked Caylen Wallace with a pitch, Slavens took him deep to right center field for his second home run of the game to make it 9-2.
Aleman’s final line showed 6 1/3 innings pitched with six earned runs allowed on seven hits, but he pitched much better than that. He was dominant for the better part of six innings and struck out a career-high eight batters. His slider had excellent depth on it after it had been a little flat over his previous two or three starts.
“He was cruising,” O’Sullivan said. “He was throwing the ball really well. That’s the best he’s thrown all year long, and we were a little bit light in the bullpen, obviously, because we used Jack [Leftwich] yesterday and Trey [Van Der Weide’s] groin was bothering him a little bit from when he slipped on Thursday night. So, we were a little bit short-handed there, and, obviously, Christian [Scott], we needed somebody at the end of the game.
“So, it was just one of those things where they hit some balls through the infield against Franco, and then, obviously, we went to the bullpen there in the seventh, and it just didn’t work out.”
The Gators added a meaningless run on Thompson’s RBI double into the left field corner with two outs in the ninth.
Zebulon Vermillion struck out two Gators in a 1-2-3 top of the seventh to earn the win. The Razorbacks’ seven pitchers combined to strike out 11 Gators. That made it 44 strikeouts for the weekend after UF fanned 16 times on Thursday and 17 times on Friday.
Slavens and Robert Moore powered Arkansas’ offense with two hits apiece, while Slavens drove in five runs between his two blasts.
Calilao and Thompson were the only Gators to record multiple hits. Florida went just 3-for-13 with runners on base, including 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position.
The Gators enter the SEC Tournament as the No. 6 seed and on a four-game losing streak. They’ll open the tournament with a single-elimination game against No. 11 seed Kentucky on Tuesday morning at 10:30 in Hoover, Alabama. The Gators may need to win one or two games in Hoover to cement their status as a regional host in the NCAA Tournament.