They played two at the Mac on Saturday throughout varying degrees of moisture in the air and in the end, the Florida Gators (26-13/11-6 SEC) were victorious in both games, defeating the rival Georgia Bulldogs (21-17-1/7-9-1 SEC) to take the series as well as. The first game saw the Gators win by a score of 3-2.
It began with a single by Georgia center fielder and leadoff hitter Stephen Wrenn, and his 13 steals on 16 attempts coming into Saturday commanded a healthy amount of respect from the Gators once the speedy freshman reached base. Eight pickoff attempts total kept Wrenn honest on first base, but not honest enough as he would eventually steal second after a throw by Taylor Gushue was late arriving. Entering Saturday, Florida’s catcher was throwing out 27% of steals attempted on him.
Gushue would get his revenge however, when he nabbed Wrenn attempting to steal third during the next at-bat. It was a big put-out for the Gators in a game their head coach felt would hinge on one or two plays.
“We got him kind of leaning a couple times and you just kinda got a sense and it’s kinda a gut-feel,” Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “But I felt like they were gonna try and be very very aggressive offensively and it was just one of those things where we were gonna try to hold it at bay and not let them ambush us so to speak.”
The Bulldogs did end up cracking the scoreboard first in the third inning when third baseman Hunter Cole RBI single to left field scored designated hitter Jess Posey from second. They would strike again in the fourth when right fielder Skyler Weber hit a two-out RBI single to left field that scored shortstop Nelson Ward.
The Gators answered in their half of the fourth inning however with two runs of their own after third baseman Peter Alonso had an RBI groundout that scored Gushue and left fielder Justin Shafer RBI singled to right-center field on the very next at-bat to tie the game when right fielder Braden Mattson crossed home plate.
In the next frame the Gators would score the go-ahead run with one swing of the bat. Third Basemen John Sternagel smoked a 1-0 offering into the left field bleachers in the bottom of the fifth, the only person with a chance at the ball was a fan in a poncho who hauled in the homer with his glove on his outstretched left hand. Sternagel’s home run was the first for the freshman in his UF career and the first for Florida in 11 days since its 8-0 win over in-state rival Florida State.
“You know obviously the first one is probably the best one but knowing that it actually had an impact,” Sternagel said. “Giving us a little lead when we needed a little separation was awesome. So it made it twice as good as a home run when you’re up eight, you know?”
It was the only run they’d need as right hander Bobby Poyner relieved starter Logan Shore to begin the top of the sixth inning and dominated Georgia the rest of the way. He struck out seven of the 14 batters he faced, and only 12 of his 53 total pitches were balls.
He allowed only two hits in his five innings of work and earned the save on a team without a defined closer — seven Florida pitchers have recorded a save this season.
“Ya it was good, you know I was really just happy to keep the 3-2 lead, help get Logan [Shore] a win,” Poyner said. “He picked up a good one there.”
Poyner went on to talk about the importance of holding the win and the burden of not losing a game that someone else could otherwise get a tally in the W column for. The 1-2 punch of Shore and Poyner also combined for a win in the March 29th victory over LSU in which they were the only two pitchers used. That night Shore almost notched a complete game going 8.2 innings before handing the ball to Shore to get the game’s last out and the second of his three saves this season.
In game No. 2 it would again be in the third inning when the scoring began, this time Florida opened things up by taking advantage of Georgia starter Robert Tyler being ineffectively wild. Infielders Richie Martin and Casey Turgeon both advanced to second and third respectively on one wild pitch. Then each advanced one base again on the next wild pitch from Tyler, with Turgeon scoring. Center fielder Harrison Bader RBI singled on the next pitch, scoring Martin from third and the Gators took a two-run lead into the fourth.
Georgia would plate a run of its own in the fourth and those weren’t the only fireworks of the frame.
On a fielder’s choice, Bulldogs first baseman Daniel Nichols was thrown out at second. As he slid into the base he extended his left arm to in some way impede shortstop Richie Martin’s throw to first in an attempt to turn two for a double play. A stare down ensued between the two but nothing more after a few tense moments of baseball machismo. Georgia first year head coach Scott Stricklin came from the dugout to yank Nichols off the field, and Florida head man Kevin O’Sullivan came out to speak his piece to second base umpire Morris Hodges. O’Sullivan said he went out to stand up for his guys and get clarification on the call.
The Gators would respond with a knockout blow in the form of six runs in the home-half of the fourth with their prototypical small-ball style. In six straight at-bats Florida scored with a single, two walks, two more singles and finally a hit by pitch. The Gators batted around in the process, starting and ending the inning with Mattson at the plate.
“I think we’ve been doing a really good job,” Center fielder Harrison Bader said “The number of hits and everything and the way we’ve been manufacturing runs is really important. Playing for the big inning. Playing for the big inning is what we’ve been doing and we’ve been doing a good job.”
They cruised to the finish, only notching one hit the rest of the way, a Buddy Reed single to center field.
Florida’s second victory gave it the series win and the all-too-valuable tiebreaker over the Bulldogs in what will be a tight SEC east race coming down the home stretch of the 2014 season. Human nature would lead you to believe that some pressure is off for Florida’s Sunday matinee contest over Georgia, but the Gators will hit their the pillows tonight with tired bones after an 18-inning day thinking of only brooms tomorrow against the Bulldogs.
“You go into the same game with the same attitude, same mentality,” Bader said. “I think every game is important, regardless of the outcome of the previous one. Tomorrow we’re gonna come out and we’re gonna come out strong and we’re gonna take this series, we’re gonna take a sweep.”