Getting outhit 11-5 and stranding 12 runners on base normally isn’t a recipe for winning postseason baseball games.
But the No. 13 Gators capitalized on their scoring opportunities more than Kentucky did. The Wildcats stranded 14 runners on base and struck out 11 times.
The clutch pitching by UF’s trio of Tommy Mace, Trey Van Der Weide and Jack Leftwich combined with a couple of clutch hits by the Gators’ offense and two costly errors by Kentucky’s defense to allow Florida to sneak past Kentucky 4-1 in their SEC Tournament opening round, single-elimination game on Tuesday afternoon in Hoover, Alabama.
The win advances the Gators (36-19, 17-13 SEC) into the double-elimination portion of the tournament, which starts with a 10:30 a.m. date with third-seeded Mississippi State on Wednesday. More importantly, their third victory of the season over the Wildcats should go a long way toward cementing their status as a regional host in the NCAA Tournament.
“Obviously, we’re coming off a really tough weekend at Arkansas, and, certainly, Arkansas played great,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “There’s a reason they won all 10 series this year and put themselves in position to win the SEC Championship.
“To come back today – and [there’s] been some travel; we got in here Sunday night – it was an important win for us. And obviously, we’re coming off three games that we’ve lost at Arkansas. And this time of the year, postseason’s got a different feel to it, and bottom line is we found a way to win today.”
The game started out looking like a continuation of that sweep at Arkansas.
Mace jumped ahead of leadoff batter Austin Schultz 0-2 before drilling him with a slider that didn’t slide. T.J. Collett jumped all over the very next pitch Mace threw and one-hopped it over the wall in right for a ground-rule double. With runners on second and third and nobody out, it seemed inevitable that the Wildcats (29-23, 12-18) would strike first. It was just a question of whether Mace could limit the damage to a single run or not.
Mace had other plans. He struck out Coltyn Kessler, John Rhodes and Jacob Plastiak to incredibly hang a zero on the scoreboard in an inning that foreshadowed things to come.
“Tommy competed very well today,” left fielder Jacob Young said. “He had some tough situations that he pitched out of. He made some really big pitches, and we needed that start out of him and kind of get everything going after the weekend. We wanted some momentum, and it kind of all got started in the whole first inning.”
Florida carried that momentum over into their first at bat. Young lined the first pitch he saw from Sean Harney over the wall in left field for his fourth home run of the season.
“I was just looking for a good pitch, kind of middle, middle-in, and I got it,” Young said. “Luckily, I didn’t miss it and kind of got the team rolling.”
Harney appeared to bounce back when he got Nathan Hickey to pop up an 0-1 pitch into foul territory down the left field line. Instead, Schultz overran the ball for an error that kept the at bat alive. Harney hit Hickey with the next pitch to give the Gators a gift-wrapped baserunner. Kendrick Calilao drew a one-out walk. With two outs and an 0-2 count, Sterlin Thompson took a two-seam fastball on the inner part of the plate and deposited it into left field to make it 2-0.
Kentucky threatened again in the second, with Zeke Lewis doubling with one out and advancing to third on a passed ball. Mace then jammed Cam Hill with a 1-1 fastball that trickled back to the mound. Mace couldn’t field the ball cleanly. Once he picked the ball up, he decided to look Lewis back to third, which allowed Hill to get an easy infield single.
Perhaps the biggest play of the game followed during Chase Estep’s at bat. Hill attempted to steal second in an effort to bait the Gators into allowing Lewis to steal home. Instead, shortstop Josh Rivera stepped up and caught Mac Guscette’s throw in front of the bag and delivered a strike to the plate to get Lewis out.
Mace finished the inning with a strikeout of Estep.
After a 1-2-3 third inning for Mace, he hit Rhodes with a pitch to leadoff the fourth and surrendered a one-out single to Ryan Ritter. Once again, he delivered big pitches when he needed to, striking out Lewis and getting Hill to ground out to first.
The Gators threatened to blow the game open in the bottom of the inning. Guscette walked, Young singled and Hickey was hit by a pitch to load the bases with two outs. However, Jud Fabian popped out to short to keep it a two-run game.
UK finally pushed one home against Mace in the fifth. Schultz and Kessler singled. With two outs, Rhodes crushed a 2-2 offering into the left field corner to cut the lead to 2-1. Guscette misplayed a first-pitch popup by Ritter, but it ended up not costing them. Mace got Ritter to pop out to Calilao at first to keep the lead intact.
The Gators added some much-needed insurance runs in the bottom of the fifth. Calilao led off with a walk. With one out, Thompson rolled over a ball to Lewis at second for what should’ve been an inning-ending double play. But Lewis’ throw sailed wide of second base and gave UF a scoring opportunity that it shouldn’t have had. Rivera walked to load the bases.
Down 0-2 in the count, Cory Acton lined Harney’s final pitch of the day into right field to make it 3-1. Daniel Harper entered the game out of the bullpen and got Guscette to ground a 1-2 pitch slowly toward Lewis. This time, Lewis made a clean delivery to Ritter for one out, but Ritter’s return throw was wide, which allowed the final run of the game to cross the plate.
Van Der Weide replaced Mace on the mound to start the sixth. Mace, pitching on just four days’ rest, scattered seven hits across five innings, walked just one batter and struck out eight. He threw 94 pitches in his final action before the NCAA Tournament.
“There really wasn’t a conversation,” Mace said. “[O’Sullivan and I] kind of both knew that I was going to throw on short rest. I prepared like that Thursday at Arkansas, kind of assuming that I would. I did that sophomore year, so kind of the same thing.”
Both bullpens dominated over the final 3 ½ innings of the game. Van Der Weide tossed 2 2/3 scoreless innings with two hits, one walk and one strikeout. Leftwich pitched the final 1 1/3 innings and struck out two batters to collect his fifth save of the year.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats’ combination of Harper, Cole Daniels and Holt Jones held the Gators to just one hit and no runs over the final 3 2/3 innings.
Things did get a little dicey in the ninth. Kessler and Rhodes notched back-to-back one-out singles against Leftwich to bring the tying run to the plate. After uncorking a wild pitch to advance both runners, Leftwich struck out Plastiak and got pinch hitter Oraj Anu to ground out to Rivera to end the Gators’ four-game losing streak.
“I thought Tommy pitched well today, certainly, in some difficult spots,” O’Sullivan said. “He made big pitches when he needed to. I thought Trey came in and did a really nice job, and he’s kind of settled into that setup role. And Jack made some pitches at the end like he’s been doing.
“It was a game we were probably a little bit fortunate to win, but we certainly made some pitches when we needed to.”
The win was extremely important for the Gators. Not only did they strengthen their bid to be a regional host, but they’ve also given themselves an opportunity to enter that regional with some momentum if they continue playing well. Plus, they’ve given pitchers Hunter Barco and Franco Aleman a chance to start one more game before the regional instead of entering the postseason on a two-week layoff.
It wasn’t pretty, but the Gators found a way to scratch out a win over the Wildcats.
“It was huge,” Young said. “I mean, postseason baseball started today. It’s kind of that mentality ‘Win or go home.’ And we knew we needed this win, especially after the weekend, but, postseason, you’ve got to kind of flip that switch, and the little things start mattering more and everything, and so it’s really good to get going in the right direction, and that was a start today.”