Watch out college baseball world. The Florida Gators are finally starting to play like the unanimous preseason No. 1 team.
After an embarrassing and frustrating blowout loss at Florida State on Tuesday night, the No. 5 Gators bounced back in a big-time way, beating Texas A&M 8-4 on Saturday to finish off the series sweep to begin SEC play.
“It feels really good,” UF (16-5) coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “I’m really proud of the way the guys battled today and the way they bounced back from Tuesday night. That was obviously a really frustrating game all the way around, but it’s amazing when you’re coaching young people how quickly the script can get flipped, so to speak. Last Tuesday feels like three weeks ago.
“You could certainly see the intensity and the focus was just different this weekend. We’ve been waiting for a weekend quite like this. It just hadn’t shown up yet.”
The Gators’ hunger for a sweep showed up immediately in the first inning. Hunter Barco struck out three Aggies (15-7) in the top half, and Jacob Young and Jud Fabian led off the bottom of the frame with back-to-back singles. Young advanced to third on a flyout by Nathan Hickey and scored on an errant pickoff attempt by Aggies starter Jonathan Childress.
Despite a heavy wind blowing in from left for most of the afternoon, Kirby McMullen crushed a three-run shot to left center field to expand the lead to 4-0 after three innings.
Florida tacked on single runs on a Jordan Butler fielder’s choice in the fifth and a Colby Halter double in the sixth.
Fabian launched his second opposite-field home run of the series to lead off the seventh.
“It was a down-and-away fastball I think, and I just kind of kept my hands back, kept my body back through the hands and got barrel on it,” Fabian said. “I knew if I hit it that way, the wind’s blowing that way, so I’ve got a shot. And it ended up going over.”
Fabian now has eight homers this season, and he went 3-for-4 on Saturday after going 0-for-4 on Friday.
“I tell you what, to get the ball out of the yard today was not an easy task,” O’Sullivan said. “If Jud can continue on the path he’s on, our offense has got a chance to be even better than it is right now.”
Mac Guscette followed later in the seventh inning with an RBI single up the middle.
The Gators racked up 14 hits as a team, with every starter except for Josh Rivera recording at least one.
The bottom of the order continued to come up huge for the Gators. Freshmen Halter and Guscette hit near the bottom of the order in all three games. Halter went 5-for-11 with three RBI, while Guscette went 7-for-12 with three RBI. If Guscette isn’t named SEC Freshman of the Week on Monday, there needs to be a large-scale investigation of the SEC office.
“Our lineup is deep,” Fabian said. “We’ve got like, I think, 15 guys who could get in there and get a hit whenever we need it.
“Our approach has been good since the start of the year, and that’s kind of why we lead the SEC in hits.”
On the mound, Barco was dominant for six innings, striking out nine batters and giving up just one run on five hits.
UF’s three weekend starters – Tommy Mace, Jack Leftwich and Barco – combined to give up just five earned runs on 18 hits in 20 innings, with 26 strikeouts. That’ll get you a sweep almost every time.
“I don’t know if I could ask for anything more from the way they pitched,” O’Sullivan said. “That’s what we’re going to need to be successful in this league, and in years past, when we have been successful in this league, we’ve had three really good starters, and especially the third guy, as good as Barco is, there’s really not a whole lot of drop-off with all three of them. This weekend was a really good weekend for our starters.”
Barco did run into some major trouble in the seventh inning. He gave up four consecutive singles to trim the lead to 6-2 and bring the tying run to the plate with nobody out. O’Sullivan turned to Franco Aleman out of the bullpen to squelch the rally.
If there were any lingering doubts among fans whether Aleman could deliver in big moments after his debacle against Miami, Aleman put an end to them on Saturday. After an additional run scored on a passed ball by Guscette, Aleman struck out three consecutive batters to escape the inning.
“It’s not an easy situation to be in,” O’Sullivan said. “Then [Bryan] Sturges, that was a big at bat, and he put together a really quality at bat for A&M, and Franco was really competitive and kept making pitch after pitch after pitch in a really tough spot.
“I’ve trusted Franco all along. I know he got out of the gate slow, but I think what we’ve done with him is give him a little more breathing room and lengthen him out a little bit and not just wait for the ninth inning. I think we’re going to get more out of him in that role like we did today, and I’m obviously really pleased with how he performed today.”
Aleman picked up two more strikeouts in the eighth and ninth innings, though he did give up a run on a sacrifice fly in the ninth with the game well in hand.
He’s now conceded just two earned runs in his last 11 2/3 innings pitched. O’Sullivan said it was just a matter of getting his confidence back. How he pitched against Texas A&M is how he pitched all offseason.
“I kept running him back out there,” O’Sullivan said. “I think that’s the best way you can give trust to a player or give them confidence is to stay with them even though they might not be pitching or playing at their highest level or at the level they want to.”
Aleman is grateful that O’Sullivan stuck with him, even when you had to wonder what in the world O’Sullivan was thinking.
“When your head coach trusts you, that’s huge,” he said. “That means I have to work my butt off to be able to back him up. If he trusts me, it’s for a reason. I’ve got to keep proving that to him.
“I feel like the adjustments were just a few mechanical tweaks that when I was in the moment and the adrenaline, I couldn’t think about making them. Looking back, I did a lot of work with our pitching coach, Paco [Rodriguez]. I made those adjustments, and now I’m able to feel good and locate in the zone, and I’ve gained a lot of confidence since Miami.”
With one-tenth of the SEC schedule complete, the Gators will find themselves no worse than tied for first heading into a series at South Carolina next weekend.
What a difference four days makes.
“When you face adversity, there’s two ways you can take: you either keep getting punched or say ‘I’m done’ and react to it the way we did this weekend,” Aleman said.
“I think we’ve been challenged, and we answered that challenge this weekend, and we showed everybody what we’re really about. We’re playing the best baseball we have all year, and I think it’s only going to get better from now.”