Leftwich outduels Miller as Gators take series

Game two of the series between No. 5 Florida and Texas A&M on Friday night was an old-fashioned pitchers’ duel. Florida’s Jack Leftwich and Texas A&M’s Bryce Miller each surrendered just one run, limited baserunners and executed clutch pitches when needed.

In the end, though, Leftwich was just a little bit better. That was the difference in the Gators’ 3-1 victory to clinch the series.

“It’s really hard, like I said last night, to win a series against anybody in our league, especially a really good club like Texas A&M,” UF (15-5) coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “It was a well-pitched game on both sides. Jack matched their starter pitch-for-pitch and was really good and really efficient.”

Indeed he was. He tossed seven innings and gave up just three hits. He struck out six Aggies (15-6), while walking just two. His only big mistake was a first-pitch slider that he didn’t quite get enough break on to Will Frizzell in the sixth inning. Frizzell blasted it way out of Florida Ballpark for his league-leading eighth home run of the season to tie the score at one apiece.

Other than that moonshot, the Aggies only put a runner in scoring position twice against him. Austin Bost doubled into the left field corner with two outs in the first inning, but Leftwich got Logan Britt to pop out to short to end the inning. A walk and a bunt put a runner on second with two outs in the fifth inning, but he got Kalae Harrison to ground out to end that threat.

A big factor in Leftwich’s dominant start was the reemergence of his changeup. He had one of the best changeups in the SEC his first two seasons but had strangely only thrown it maybe a handful of times in his first four starts of 2021. He used it much more extensively against the Aggies and got excellent results. It had good downward movement and enough deception to keep the Aggies guessing. Leftwich said it was just a matter of rebuilding his confidence in the pitch.

“My freshman and sophomore year, that was my best pitch,” he said. “I couldn’t really spin the ball, and then I worked really hard to spin the ball, and so I got a slider, which I really liked. And so, then, I kind of put the changeup on the backburner. And so, I’ve just been trying to get it back. But that’s always been one of my best pitches when I throw it good.”

It also helped that Tommy Mace was very sharp the night before in giving up just two earned runs in seven innings. Leftwich and Mace are close friends and classmates who usually faced off against each other in intrasquad scrimmages in the preseason. They competed against each other to see who could give up the fewest number of runs, strikeout the most batters and throw the hardest.

That competition has carried over into the season. Mace pitched a gem last night, so Leftwich had to respond.

“I think the last two starts have been really good,” O’Sullivan said. “I think there’s a little bit of competitiveness with him and Tommy. I think one feeds off the other, and I think Tommy set the tone for the weekend. Obviously, Jack took the baton and was really good tonight. He needed to be because their starter was really good as well.”

Speaking of Miller, he tossed 5 2/3 innings and gave up five hits. He struck out five Gators and walked just one. The Gators couldn’t pick up his slider, and he took advantage of a generous strike zone by the home plate umpire by consistently locating his fastball just off the outside edge for called strikes.

Jacob Young led off the game for UF with a single back up the middle. He stole second base with two outs but was stranded there when Miller got Kirby McMullen to pop out.

Colby Halter led off the third with a single and advanced to second on a flyout by Mac Guscette and to third on a groundout by Young. Once again, Miller came through in the clutch, striking out Jud Fabian to keep the game scoreless.

His only blemish came in the fourth inning. With two outs, Jordan Butler laced a double into the left center field gap. Sterlin Thompson followed with a single to left center to give the Gators the 1-0 lead.

There was one key area that Leftwich beat Miller in – innings pitched. Leftwich took advantage of the Aggies’ aggressiveness by getting a bunch of early-count outs that kept his pitch count low. While UF’s batters didn’t accomplish much on the scoreboard against Miller, they did a nice job of battling with two strikes and running up his pitch count. Texas A&M having to go to its bullpen earlier than Florida ended up being a crucial factor in the game.

The game was essentially won in the seventh inning. In the top half, with the score tied at one, Zane Schmidt hit a deep fly ball just to the right of the batter’s eye in center field. Fabian retreated to the wall, timed his jump perfectly, made the catch and held onto the ball as his arm collided with the top of the wall for the final out.

“I know everybody talks about his hitting, his power, obviously, he can run, but the other part of his game that gets overlooked sometimes is how good he is defensively,” O’Sullivan said. “I think it was a 3-2 count, and their hitter put a really good swing on it, but he timed it perfectly. He’s done that quite a few times in practice where he’s made spectacular plays. But that certainly not only was a great play, but I think it changed the momentum of the game for us.”

In the bottom of the frame, Aggies reliever Chandler Jozwiak issued just his second walk of the season to Josh Rivera to lead off. Halter and Guscette followed with consecutive singles up the middle, the latter of which gave the Gators a 2-1 lead. Fabian later brought home the final run of the game by grounding into a double play with the bases loaded.

Christian Scott earned his first save of the season by tossing the final two innings.

The Gators are happy to win the series, but O’Sullivan urged them to not be satisfied. You don’t get a chance to sweep a series in the SEC very often, especially against a team like Texas A&M that had won 11 straight games prior to this weekend. They’ve got them on the ropes; now they need to finish them.

“The message at the end of the game was ‘We can’t be satisfied by just winning the first two,’” O’Sullivan said. “You’ve got a chance to beat somebody in our league three times, I don’t care who it is, you’ve got to take advantage of that, and that normally determines whether you have a real chance of winning an SEC Championship at the end of the year. The difference between finishing first and second or third, usually, it’s a small margin.”

There was also a small margin on Friday night. Leftwich was just a little bit better than Miller.

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.