Hall of Fame Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver once said that “momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher.”
Weaver’s theory was proven correct yet again on Saturday night at Florida Ballpark. After the No. 5 Gators suffered an ugly and mistake-filled upset loss to Jacksonville on Friday, the Dolphins entered Saturday with momentum. They could sense a series victory within reach.
And then Jack Leftwich changed everything. Leftwich pitched six scoreless innings in the Gators’ 9-0 defeat of Jacksonville (4-9).
UF’s bullpen is perilously thin right now. Nick Pogue and Tyler Nesbitt are out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Ben Specht hasn’t pitched in nearly three weeks with an injury. Add in the fact that they used four relievers in game one, and the Gators (12-4) needed Leftwich to get deep into the game.
Leftwich did just that and gave up just two hits and three walks while striking out seven batters.
He got better as the game went on. He struggled to locate his offspeed pitches in the early innings but found his command in the fifth and sixth innings. He needed 86 pitches to get through the first five innings but got through the sixth on just six pitches. He might’ve gotten through the seventh if not for some cramping. He retired eight consecutive batters until a leadoff walk to start the seventh.
“I felt good,” Leftwich said. “I thought the ball was coming out good. I wasn’t realty nibbling, which was good. So, I was just kind of, like, trying to throw it as hard as I can in the zone. My slider, that was probably the best it’s been later on in the game. It started getting the action I want, so that was good. And then I threw a few good changeups towards the end too, so that was really good. I felt good with everything.”
Jordan Carrion followed Leftwich to the mound. He tossed two scoreless frames with a pair of strikeouts.
Carrion pitched in high school but was expected to concentrate on playing the middle infield in college. With depth lacking, coach Kevin O’Sullivan decided to add Carrion to the mix two weeks ago. He’s now thrown 3 2/3 scoreless innings and has surrendered just one hit. He features a low-90s fastball and a looping lower-70s curveball.
O’Sullivan has liked how the experiment has gone so far. In fact, he’s considering expanding Carrion’s role even further.
“I thought Jordan Carrion was outstanding,” O’Sullivan said. “His angle of his fastball was really good. He threw the fastball to both sides of the plate. Really good breaking ball. Looking at the way he was throwing tonight, we probably need to put him in a little bit more leverage situations.
“Possibly, I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but maybe he’s a guy we look at at the end of the game. He kind of checks all the boxes. Whether that’s going to happen or not is up to him, but we’ll certainly maybe look at it. He’s got the makeup, he’s got instincts, he’s a baseball player, he throws a ton of strikes, he holds runners and, obviously, he can field his position. He does a lot of the things that you need to have a guy at the end of the game [do].”
Offensively, the Gators were powered by home runs from Josh Rivera, Nathan Hickey and Kirby McMullen. Hickey had three hits and came a triple away from the cycle.
However, it was Rivera’s second home run in as many days that was the most encouraging development offensively. Prior to Friday, he had collected just three hits in his previous 36 at bats. His surge this weekend started with a hard lineout to right field in his first at bat on Friday. He’s starting to feel better about himself, and he hopes to use this weekend as a launching point.
“It was definitely great to make some hard contact after the struggles that had been happening for me these past couple of weeks,” Rivera said. “I think the biggest thing out of that was just trying to feel everything in the box. After that [lineout], I felt really good in my legs. Everything felt normal. My swing felt rhythmic. Everything felt back to where I was last year during the season.”
Defensively, Florida committed just one error after committing four in game one. Reserve catcher Mac Guscette got the start behind the plate and displayed a lightning-quick pop time and a cannon for a right arm in throwing out two would-be base stealers.
“Personally, he’s probably the best catcher I’ve thrown to,” Leftwich said. “I kind of knew going into the season that he would catch me every Saturday basically because that was kind of the plan. He caught me all preseason, and so, me and him have a pretty good relationship, and he’s really good at stealing pitches and giving a good target, which is important.”
O’Sullivan isn’t ready to commit to Guscette receiving more playing time moving forward but did say that he was impressed with how he played.
“I thought Mac Guscette was outstanding behind the plate,” he said. “Only had maybe one or two drops, hit the ball hard three times, threw the ball really well behind the plate. He certainly is starting to really put himself in a really good position for us as far as the trust factor.”
After a disheartening loss on Friday, the Gators bounced back and put themselves in position to take the series on Sunday and enter the start of conference play with momentum. More importantly, they potentially identified a future stalwart behind the plate and their closer and broke a key member of the lineup out of an extended slump. It was a successful Saturday night by every measure.
And it all started with Jack Leftwich.