Offense stalls as Gators drop opener to Arkansas

When Kendrick Calilao smashed a home run to left field in the second inning to give No. 9 Florida a 1-0 lead, it looked like the Gators might give No. 1 Arkansas a run for its money on Thursday night at Baum-Walker Stadium.

Instead, that turned out to be one of the last things Gators fans had to cheer for.

The Razorbacks’ dynamic duo of Patrick Wicklander and Kevin Kopps pitched a shutout the rest of the way, and Arkansas surged past Florida for a 6-1 win in game one of the series.

Wicklander and Kopps combined to give up just three hits and strike out 16 Gators. All nine Gators struck out at least once, and five of them struck out multiple times. Jud Fabian struck out in all four of his plate appearances. The Gators went just 1-for-9 with runners on base, including 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position.

“Obviously, when you [strike out that many times], it’s just really difficult to string along any type of innings or any type of momentum,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “But credit Arkansas’ pitchers; they were really good tonight. I would expect us to bounce back tomorrow and have a better night offensively. The amount of strikeouts obviously didn’t help our cause tonight.”

On the other side, UF’s four pitchers combined to strike out 12 Razorbacks. However, they also issued six walks and hit a batter. They had major trouble finishing out innings, as five of Arkansas’ runs crossed the plate with two outs.

Cayden Wallace was the star of the night offensively for Arkansas (40-10, 20-8 SEC), launching a pair of home runs, including a three-run shot that put the game way out of reach in the bottom of the eighth. Casey Opitz also contributed three hits, and he drove in the other two runs.

Calilao’s blast with one out in the second off of Wicklander was his fifth of the year and his fourth in the last seven games.

The Gators (35-17, 17-11) had a chance to pad their lead in the third inning but couldn’t get a clutch hit. Jacob Young reached on a fielder’s choice, and Nathan Hickey moved him to third with a two-out single. Wicklander struck out Fabian for the second time to end the inning. Hickey’s single was Florida’s last hit of the game.

UF starter Tommy Mace did an impressive tightrope act in the bottom of the inning. Opitz led off with a double into the right field corner and advanced to third on a flyout by Jalen Battles. Mace got a huge strikeout of Zack Gregory but then walked two straight batters to load the bases. He got Brady Slavens to fly out and end the threat.

As it turned out, the Razorbacks’ league-leading offense wouldn’t be held down for much longer. Mace hit Christian Franklin with his first pitch of the fourth inning. A passed ball by Hickey on a strikeout moved Franklin into scoring position, and he scored on Opitz’s two-out single through the right side to tie the game.

Florida had a chance to answer and reclaim the lead in the following inning, with Josh Rivera drawing a leadoff walk and advancing to second on a one-out wild pitch. Wicklander struck out Cory Acton and got Young to line out to center to end the inning.

Arkansas scored what proved to be the winning runs and chased Mace from the game in the bottom of the fifth. Wallace drilled his first homer of the night just inside the right field foul pole with one out to give his team the lead. A couple of walks put a runner in scoring position with two outs and ended Mace’s night.

Mace struck out eight batters in 4 2/3 innings but also gave up five hits and walked four batters. His pitch count escalated quickly, and he departed after throwing 104 pitches.

“When you’re playing teams like Arkansas or you’re playing teams like Florida or Vanderbilt or other teams in our league for that matter, when teams are playing really good, all the little things get magnified,” O’Sullivan said. “I thought Tommy pitched good and made big pitches when he needed to, but, obviously, the hit by pitch to start the inning, and, when you’re facing offenses like Arkansas, it’s really, really important to get the leadoff hitter so they don’t get a whole lot of momentum, and, when you have an opportunity to close out innings, you have to do that.”

Trey Van Der Weide followed Mace to the mound and faced a pinch hitter in Charlie Welch. Welch hit a slow roller down the first baseline. Van Der Weide slipped as he attempted to field the ball and kicked it for an infield single that loaded the bases. Opitz lined the very next pitch into left field to expand the Razorbacks’ lead to 3-1. Van Der Weide got Battles to pop out to limit the damage.

Van Der Weide settled in afterwards, giving up no runs or hits in his final 1 2/3 innings while striking out three.

Arkansas called on Kopps, the leading contender to be named SEC Pitcher of the Year next week, to start the seventh. He lowered his earned run average to an astounding 0.76 by striking out five Gators in three scoreless innings to pick up his eighth save.

Christian Scott replaced Van Der Weide with two outs and a runner on in the seventh. After an errant pickoff throw advanced the runner to second, Scott got Jacob Nesbitt to ground out and end the inning.

Scott got the first two batters in the eighth to line out before giving up a ground-rule double to Braydon Webb. He fell behind Matt Goodheart 3-0, which prompted O’Sullivan to intentionally walk him and bring up Wallace for a right-on-right matchup.

That decision backfired. Wallace destroyed a 1-1 offering that sailed over the left field foul pole to finalize the scoring.

In the end, it didn’t really matter. The Gators weren’t going to hit the ball anyway.

Florida will try to even the series and keep its national seed hopes alive in game two of the series on Friday at 8.

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.