Fresh off its first back-to-back shutouts in 15 years, the Florida baseball team struggled Saturday afternoon. But where the Gators’ pitching arms lacked, the Gators’ batters carried the load in a 16-10 victory over Charleston Southern at McKethan Stadium in a game that featured 34 hits.
The game featured five lead changes, none more important than the six-run sixth inning put together by the Gators that gave them the lead for good.
“I’ve seen games like this at this field,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “When the wind is blowing out to left, you get a ball up and it gets up in the air, you hold your breath on every fly ball to left field. That’s just the way it is. You can use it to your advantage. Both teams are dealing with the conditions, and if you make quality pitches, it doesn’t turn out that way.”
For the first seven innings, those quality pitches from the Florida pitching staff were rare. Starting pitcher Brian Johnson lasted only 3.2 innings, surrendering nine hits and five runs. The Florida pitching staff allowed only one walk during the game, so it’s wasn’t wildness that forced the struggles. Instead, it was control of pitches within the strike zone.
Johnson’s fastball missed over the heart of the plate, allowing a three-run home run by Patrick Dolan, his first of the year, giving Charleston Southern an early 3-0 lead. This swing broke a 24.1-inning scoreless streak from the Florida pitching staff. His command was off again in the fourth inning when he allowed a 2-run home run to Bentley Christmas, who secured his first hit of the season with the swing, tying the game at 5-5.
Greg Larson was brought in to relieve Johnson, but after getting a strikeout to end another threat in the fourth inning, it was more of the same. The sophomore right-hander allowed four earned runs in the fifth inning that saw the Buccaneers bat around, taking a 9-7 lead in the process.
Justin Poovey was effective in his 2.1 innings, but he certainly was as good as he has been throughout the year. He allowed five hits, however only one run was scored. His outing, although not perfect, slowed the game down some to allow the Gators to build some momentum.
The common theme for the pitching staff was missing in the strike zone. Pitchers would miss catcher Mike Zunino’s target. However instead of missing for a ball, the pitches would usually miss over the heart of the plate to allow the Charleston Southern hitters to hit the ball hard.
“The bottom line is the ball is up and they’re aggressive swinging early in the count,” O’Sullivan said. “Yesterday, we made quality pitches early in the count and threw 98 pitches through nine (innings). Today, we don’t make quality pitches early in the count and it hurt us.”
Whether it was a fastball or off-speed, the pitching staff struggled to keep the ball down in the strike zone or at least on the corners of the plate.
“Stay back, get your arm up and get the ball down,” O’Sullivan said. “If you’re missing up in the zone, you make some adjustments and bounce a couple balls. That’s the question I’ve got. If you miss up in the zone, make an adjustment and throw the ball down in the zone and find your (arm) slot. It’s as simple as that.”
Jeff Barfield threw the final two innings, picking up his first save of the season, while allowing only one hit and two strikeouts.
The pitching staff’s first true struggles of the year were timed perfectly with only the second time the offense scored in double digits this season. Jonathan Pigott’s two-run single in the second inning got the Gators on the board, but it was Zunino’s swing in the third inning that was key.
Austin Maddox started things in the third with a one-out single up the middle. After Adams flew out, Bryson Smith reached on an infield single to third base. Nolan Fontana worked a walk to load the bases for Zunino. After flying out to short right field in a bases-loaded situation during the previous inning, this time Zunino cleared the bases with a three-run double down the left-field line, pushing the early Florida advantage to 5-3.
“Sully gave me a good piece of advice, to stand up on the plate and look for something I could hook a little bit,” Zunino said. “I just got on the plate and got a pitch that he left down the middle. It seemed like it was inside and I was able to put a decent swing on it and keep it fair.”
Zunino had a four-RBI day, moving him to second on the team in that category behind Maddox’s 18.
Through four innings, every Gator had a hit except for Nolan Fontana, who walked once at that point and finished the game with three.
Down 9-7 heading to the sixth inning, Jonathan Pigott worked a four-pitch walk to start the sixth inning, and Matt den Dekker lined a triple into the right-center gap to score him. The center fielder’s second hit of the game made it now nine of Florida’s 13 games this season during which den Dekker has recorded multiple hits. Daniel Pigott followed with a walk and stole second.
Preston Tucker then lined a single to right field, scoring two runs. Maddox followed with an infield single, and Adams bunted the runners to second and third. Smith lined a single to left-center and went to second on the throw home. After Smith stole third, Fontana walked and stole second. Zunino hit a sacrifice fly to center field to score Smith, giving Florida a six-run inning, their highest total in one inning this season.
Tucker would add another two-run single in the eighth inning to ice the game. His swings were better over the past week, but this was the first game during which his stat sheet showed it. He ended the night going 3-6 with 5 RBI. It was the third time in the sophomore’s career that he has driven in five or more runs in a game.
“Early in the season I was pressing because I was walked with guys on base or going up with bases empty and trying to do too much,” Tucker said. “But fortunately I got some good pitches with guys in scoring position and I drove them in.”
It’s understandable that Tucker has been pressing during the early portion of the season. After a freshman season that saw him hit .364 with 15 home runs and 85 RBI, he was named a preseason All-American. He won’t sneak up on teams now, and he will see plenty of breaking pitches to offset that. Trying to do too much put Tucker in a funk early in the year, but he’s beginning to work his way out of it.
“It’s just easing up on my swing and not trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark,” Tucker said. “A lot of the home runs I hit last year weren’t where I was trying (to hit home runs), I was just trying to get runs in. As the season goes on, the home runs will come. I’m just trying to drive in as many runs as I can right now.”
The Gators will go for the sweep Sunday. Sophomore right-hander Tommy Toledo (2-0, 1.98 ERA) will get the ball for the Gators and face Charleston Southern junior right-hander Tyler Thornburg (2-1, 6.48). First pitch is scheduled for 1 p.m.