For five innings, it looked like the No. 12 Gators were poised to end their five-game road losing streak and even up the series with No. 6 Tennessee.
They grabbed a 3-0 lead and turned in quality at bat after quality at bat. Starting pitcher Franco Aleman twirled a gem in his second start at Florida, giving up just one hit and no runs through five innings with four strikeouts.
Then the sixth inning came, and just about everything that could go wrong for the Gators did go wrong. The Volunteers scored five runs in the inning despite hitting only one ball that left the infield. They withstood a ninth-inning rally by UF to win the game 5-4 and clinch the series.
“I thought the first five innings was about as good as we’ve played all year long,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “The dugout was good. Franco was pitching awfully good. We were obviously really aggressive at the plate and took some good swings and put some good at bats together. Unfortunately, we just fell apart there in the sixth inning.”
Despite having thrown 84 pitches and the fact that he had been a late-game reliever until two weeks ago, Aleman ran back out to the mound to start the sixth as O’Sullivan tried to squeeze three more outs out of him prior to turning things over to Jack Leftwich to begin a clean inning.
Obviously, O’Sullivan has developed a reputation as one of the game’s best pitching minds and it’s always easy to second-guess him in hindsight, but there’s no denying that he made the wrong decision based on what transpired next.
Aleman walked Logan Steenstra and Liam Spence to start the inning. O’Sullivan made a move to the bullpen to bring in Leftwich. Because he opted to run Aleman back out there, Leftwich was forced to enter in a high-stress situation that he wasn’t accustomed to as a starter for most of his career.
Leftwich never looked comfortable, throwing eight consecutive balls to bring in the Volunteers’ first run of the game. O’Sullivan pulled him after those eight pitches, and a frustrated Leftwich threw his glove upon entering the dugout.
Trey Van Der Weide entered and got Drew Gilbert to ground into a double play, although another run crossed the plate to make it a 3-2 game. Still, Van Der Weide was just one pitch away from preserving the lead. Then Jordan Beck notched an infield single between short and third to tie the game. Luc Lipcius got underneath a 2-2 slider and popped it into the left field corner. It didn’t hang in the air quite long enough for Jacob Young to make a play, and it fell for a double to give Tennessee (27-5, 9-2 SEC) a 4-3 lead.
“Lipcius is hitting, I think, .050 versus lefties this year, and I think he had like a 46 percent swing-and-miss [rate] on the slider, and we just hung a slider,” O’Sullivan said. “That one kind of snuck in the left field line, and that was kind of the difference in the ballgame.”
Lipcius advanced to third on a wild pitch. That proved key, as Connor Pavolony brought him in to score with an infield single up the middle to extend the lead to 5-3.
Even with the four walks, the Gators (20-11, 5-6) had opportunities to get out of the inning with a one-run lead, a tie game and a one-run deficit. Instead, they let the Volunteers make it a big inning. If Van Der Weide doesn’t throw the wild pitch or gets a fraction of an inch more depth on his slider to Lipcius, the outcome of the game might’ve been different. Instead, Tennessee made all of the critical plays for the second night in a row.
Van Der Weide put up zeroes in the seventh and eighth innings by not giving up a hit and striking out three batters. His strong rebound gave his team a chance to work some magic with the bats in the ninth.
Young doubled to right center with one out. He came in to score when Kirby McMullen laced a two-out single to left center. However, the comeback fell one run short when Sterlin Thompson was caught looking at a 3-2 slider to end the game. All three of the Gators’ outs in the ninth came via strikeouts looking.
Florida had taken the lead in the fourth inning. Sterlin Thompson drilled a no-doubter over the wall in right center. Jud Fabian and Jordan Butler singled and Josh Rivera walked to load the bases with one out. Colby Halter struck out swinging, but Jordan Carrion stayed back on a 2-2 breaking ball and slapped it up the middle for a two-run single and a 3-0 lead. His clutch hit chased starting pitcher Will Heflin from the game.
Mark McLaughlin pitched 2 1/3 scoreless and hitless innings out of the bullpen to earn the win, while Kirby Connell picked up the save despite giving up a run on four hits in three innings.
The Gators will try to avoid their second consecutive road sweep in game three on Sunday at 1.