Gators show fight in opening win

They don’t call them the Fightin’ Gators for no reason at all. A veteran Siena baseball team was all too eager to spoil the Gators party plans for beginning the Kevin O’Sullivan Era. They pounded Florida starter Kyle Mullaney for nine hits and six earned runs in the first three innings of the game but the Gators fought back, erupting for five runs in the second to draw even and after falling behind once more, tied the game with a single run in the fourth. A four run outburst in the sixth proved to be the as Florida won 10-7, showing plenty of confidence and fight until the final swing of the bat.

Mullaney did not have it tonight and the Gators found themselves in a huge hole, but the other key elements of the Florida baseball team did their job. The Gators played error-free defense, turned timely hits into runs, and got the relief they needed from the pen.

“They had a pretty good guy out there throwing the ball pretty good,” O’Sullivan said of Siena starter Craig Chaput. “He’s a pro prospect.”

The Gators fought through the bad times and pulled together for victory. It is something they had rehearsed in their scrimmage games and remembered well. 

“You try to put your guys into positions that they’re going to be used to, that they’re going to be thrown into when the season starts,” O’Sullivan stated. “Obviously, there’s a little running, a three and half minute run that we do for the loser. It doesn’t kill them, but they don’t like to do it. But, you put one team up three to one with four innings to go and you’ve got to battle and the team that’s ahead, they have to learn to keep a lead. All of those things are important. All of those characteristics are important.”

You won’t find it in the boxscore, but the Florida coaching staff of Kevin O’Sullivan, Craig Bell, Brad Weitzel, and Don Norris hit for the cycle and share MVP honors for their efforts in preparing this team for this lesson. And it led to victory.

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And then there was the bullpen, a group that struggled last season to find a morsel of success and had much to prove. Righthander Billy Bullock came in and shut down a squad that had already pounded out nine hits and six earned runs in their first three innings. Bullock held the Saints were held scoreless for five innings.

Not bad for a guy who didn’t pitch well enough to lock down a starting assignment on the weekend. That didn’t stop him from making the most of his opportunity though. Bullock responded, nearly perfectly.

Bullock pitched six strong innings in relief, allowing just three hits and one earned run, a home run with one out in the ninth inning. The Tampa Riverview graduate fanned six hitters and was superb.

“I was locating the ball better than I had been,” Bullock said. “I knew that I was the first guy out of the pen today. I knew that I just had to keep it close, because our offense isn’t going to be shutout by anybody. Everybody was high-fiving me every time I came in, everybody had my back. Our offense just took care of everything.”

And you won’t get an argument from his coach either.

“If Billy (Bullock) doesn’t throw the way that he does, who knows what happens,” O’Sullivan said. “He pitched ahead in the count and put the ball on the ground. Kyle (Mullaney) was seven out of nineteen first pitch strikes. He lost control of his breaking ball, which was very uncharacteristic of him. He fell behind consistently and was out there with one pitch. Billy was the opposite. He pitched ahead in the count and we got two double plays, defense played great. We turned two double plays behind him and I think he had two walks all night. It was a great outing for Billy against a veteran club. We can say what we want, but they’re picked to win their conference. I mean they’ve got seniors up and down the lineup.”

Bullock said that he doesn’t really care if he starts or comes on in relief as long as he pitches and the Gators win. Was there any question that Bullock was going tom play an integral role pitching for Florida? Nope. Tonight’s performance just served to add an exclamation point to an already answered question.

“I don’t think there was ever a question that Billy Bullock wasn’t going to be one of our potential top three starters,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s just when the season started on February twenty-second, he wasn’t pitching as well as the other three. It was just pretty much that simple.”

As it turned out, Bullock tossed his hat right into the ring and helped his team rally for their first win of the new era.