While SEC play doesn’t begin until next weekend, Sunday’s rubber game between No. 5 Florida and Jacksonville had the feeling of a conference rivalry game.
This game featured just about everything, such as pitchers working their way out of jams, clutch hitting, a rollercoaster of emotions, never-ending replay reviews, chirping from the dugouts and several on-field dustups.
In the end, the Gators (13-4) prevailed with a 5-2 victory to take the series from the Dolphins (4-10).
UF struck for two runs in the first inning. Jacob Young started things off with a double. Nathan Hickey reached on an infield single, and an overthrow by shortstop Dakota Julylia allowed Young to score. Kirby McMullen followed with an RBI single up the middle to score Hickey.
Jacksonville answered in the top of the third. UF starter Hunter Barco gave up singles to Jesus Pacheco and Ruben Someillan and hit Cory Heffron to load the bases with one out. Julylia brought in one run with a single to right field, and Duncan Hunter followed with a sacrifice fly to tie the game at two.
Then, the game started to get a little intense in the bottom of the fifth. Catcher Mac Guscette led off with a double into the left field corner. He advanced to third on a flyout by Young. Hickey followed by lofting a fly ball into medium-deep right field. Hunter made the catch and fired a missile to home plate that beat Guscette by several feet. However, the umpire ruled that Guscette got his hand into the plate before the tag was applied, and he was declared safe.
The umpires reviewed the play for more than five minutes, but there wasn’t an angle that definitively proved that Guscette was out. So, the call was upheld, and the Gators took a 3-2 lead.
McMullen followed by blasting his third home run of the series, and his fourth of the week, over the left center field wall. Because of that one controversial call at the plate, the Gators led 4-2 instead of being tied going to the sixth.
“[McMullen’s] seeing it, obviously, very well,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “He hit in the middle of the order starting last year after waiting his turn for three years, and there’s a reason why he did. Obviously, I’m really happy and pleased for him. It’s a great story because he kind of waited his turn. He’s always been a great teammate. Not a good teammate, a great teammate. Obviously, his hard work is paying off now.”
Emotions boiled over in the top of the sixth. With one out and a runner on first, Jackson Grabsky hit a slow roller to first baseman Jordan Butler. Butler fielded the ball and tossed it to Barco. Barco had trouble finding the bag, which resulted in a bang-bang play. Grabsky was called out. He apparently had something to say to Barco after the play, which prompted second baseman Colby Halter to shove him in the chest. Players started pouring out of the dugouts, but the coaches and umpires did a nice job of quickly restoring order.
Meanwhile, the close play went under another lengthy replay review that once again went Florida’s way. Barco got Pacheco to fly out to Young in center field for the final out.
Halter, who wears the No. 5 jersey, led off the bottom of the seventh inning for the Gators. He took a first-pitch fastball a bit high and tight for ball one. A JU infielder could then be heard from the press box yelling, “Are you scared yet, Five?”. The next pitch by starting pitcher Mason Adams plunked Halter in the helmet.
Halter slammed his bat down and yelled toward the mound. Home plate umpire Travis Carlson immediately ejected Adams from the game. Adams threw his arms up as if to say “What did I do?”. Given the incident that occurred an inning earlier and the fact that Adams had already thrown 96 pitches, the intent seemed clear.
Once again, the umpires and coaches stepped in to prevent the situation from escalating into an ugly brawl.
“It’s a competitive game,” Young said. “With JU, we play each other a lot. I think a lot of kids know each other, too. It was more competitive than anything. Stuff like that happens. I don’t think anyone should ever be thrown at, but chippiness happens, and it’s really all part of the game.”
On the mound, Barco tossed 6 1/3 innings and gave up two runs on six hits with one walk and seven strikeouts. He seemed to always be living on the edge, as he allowed the leadoff batter to reach in the fourth through sixth innings. The Dolphins also placed a runner in scoring position in each of those innings. However, he always made the big pitch when he needed to and picked up his second win of the year.
“His numbers don’t really indicate how well he’s throwing,” O’Sullivan said. “Today was probably his best start. I thought he was really sharp, and, other than botching the bunt play [in the fifth] and a four-pitch walk to start the sixth after we scored a couple, he was really sharp.”
With one out in the seventh inning, O’Sullivan called on embattled reliever Franco Aleman to finish things off. He did just that by striking out three Dolphins and surrendering just one hit with no walks over the final 2 2/3 innings to pick up his second save.
“It was really good to stretch out Franco,” O’Sullivan said. “I think we need to get more out of him. We haven’t used him well enough, and that falls on me. I’ve got to get him out there more, and, instead of using him as a traditional three-out closer, we need to extend him. I think he threw 22 pitches, 17 strikes. Obviously, this is the best outing for him this year, as well.
“When he’s under control and he’s not trying to throw the ball 100 [miles per hour], his command obviously improves tremendously. He commanded the ball and did a really nice job.”
Offensively, Butler finalized the scoring with an opposite-field solo shot to left center in the eighth inning.
In the big picture, a series win over a Jacksonville team with a losing record won’t mean too much. However, given the back-and-forth nature of the game and the animosity between the dugouts, it was good preparation for Tuesday night’s battle with Florida State and the first conference series against Texas A&M starting on Thursday.