The No. 5 Gators entered game two of the series with No. 25 South Carolina looking to regain the momentum they entered this weekend with and even up the series following the stunning 14-inning loss on Friday night.
Instead, they experienced a new form of frustration. In game one, they hit the ball well enough to win but had a disastrous night on the mound. On Saturday, the roles flipped. The pitchers performed well enough, but the offense couldn’t get much going. The result was a 4-1 loss to the Gamecocks. It marked the first time the Gamecocks (15-6, 3-2 SEC) had taken a series from Florida since 2011.
The Gators (16-7, 3-2) mustered just five hits, including just one hit after the fourth inning. Center fielder Jud Fabian has been completely taken out of the game by South Carolina’s pitching. He went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts after going 0-for-6 with five strikeouts in game one. Likewise, second baseman Colby Halter went 0-for-3 with a pair of strikeouts after going 1-for-7 with five strikeouts on Friday.
It’s understandable for freshmen Halter, Mac Guscette and Sterlin Thompson to struggle. It’s their first SEC road series, and the quality of pitching and the intensity of the games are unlike anything they’ve ever seen before. However, it’s shocking to see veterans like Fabian, Jacob Young and Josh Rivera struggle as much as they have this weekend.
Coach Kevin O’Sullivan said he thinks his team needs a better approach at the plate. They watched fastballs split the plate to fall behind in counts and then swung at junk once they were down in the count.
“They like to pitch at the top of the strike zone,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve got lay off fastballs up in the strike zone, and, as soon as you get somebody on, they throw the ball down, and that’s been a theme for the first two games. It’s just that simple. There’s really no secret to it, but we’ve just got to do a better job of laying off some fastballs.
“I think we’ve taken too many fastballs, quite honestly, that we could’ve probably done something with and then chased some fastballs out of the zone late. And then recognize that, like the starter today, he was really good, but as soon as we got somebody on, he spun the ball.”
UF did have its chances to score but went 1-for-9 with runners on base and 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position. They struck out 12 times after striking out 19 times in game one.
The Gators got on the board first in the second inning against South Carolina starter Brannon Jordan. Thompson lined a two-out single to right field, and Kris Armstrong followed with a double into the right field corner to score Thompson. Armstrong advanced to third on a fielding error on the play. Halter struck out swinging to end the threat after just one run.
Kirby McMullen singled and Jordan Butler reached on an error with one out in the fourth. They moved to second and third on a wild pitch. Thompson and Halter both struck out looking, and the Gators came away with nothing.
Armstrong launched a one-out double into the right field corner in the seventh, but consecutive flyouts by Halter and Rivera ended the inning.
Meanwhile, UF starter Jack Leftwich played with fire during his 4 2/3 innings on the mound. He surrendered a one-out single to David Mendham in the second inning. He then drilled Jeff Heinrich and Colin Burgess with pitches to load the bases. He escaped the jam and preserved the 1-0 lead by getting George Callil to ground into a 6-4-3 double play.
Leftwich walked a batter and plunked two more to load the bases with two outs in the third. He got Mendham to fly out to right field to end the inning.
With one out in the fifth inning, Braylen Wimmer doubled into the left center field gap. Josiah Sightler drew a walk to bring up Wes Clarke, the national leader in home runs. Clarke entered the at bat 0-for-15 against SEC pitching this season. He launched the first pitch he saw from Leftwich over the right field wall to give South Carolina a 3-1 lead.
Leftwich got a groundout and hit two more batters before giving way to Franco Aleman. Leftwich gave up just four hits but plunked an astonishing six Gamecocks. O’Sullivan’s game plan was to pound the Gamecocks on the inner part of the plate and induce some weak contact. Leftwich simply didn’t have the command to execute that plan.
Aleman threw 2 1/3 hitless innings with three strikeouts, Trey Van Der Weide recorded one out and Brandon Sproat didn’t give up a run in his 2/3 of an inning. The Gamecocks tacked on an unearned run in the eighth inning when Mendham led off by reaching on an error by Rivera, advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt, moved to third on a bloop single by Burgess and scored on a sacrifice fly by Callil.
It’s hard to label any one baseball game as a must-win. The SEC schedule is a 30-game gauntlet that figures to be filled with ups and downs. Things are usually never as good as they seem or as bad as they seem. Heck, the 2017 Gators got swept on the road at Auburn on opening weekend of SEC play en route to winning the national championship.
Still, Sunday’s game feels extremely important. The Gators need to stay above .500 in league play to avoid digging themselves into an insurmountable hole, especially with an Ole Miss team that’s undefeated in conference play heading to Gainesville next weekend.
“We’ve just got to figure out a way to win a game tomorrow, go back home tomorrow with a W and learn from this road experience that we’re going through right now,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s a long season, but we’ve just got to play better on both sides.
“At the end of the day, it’s a 30-game schedule in the SEC, and it’s certainly disappointing with the outcome of these first two games, but we’re going to have to figure it out and just play our best baseball of the weekend tomorrow and then just kind of go from there.”