Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan has been known to make some aggressive decisions on the mound throughout his career. Most of them have worked out.
In game two of the 2017 College World Series finals against LSU, he brought No. 3 starter Jackson Kowar into the game as a reliever en route to a national championship. A couple of weeks earlier, he brought No. 2 starter Brady Singer into game one of the Super Regional against Wake Forest after a long rain delay prematurely ended Alex Faedo’s night. He made Logan Shore his Friday night ace just a couple of weeks into his freshman year in 2014.
O’Sullivan worked his magic again on Thursday night. With the pitching staff not firing on all cylinders in a sweep at South Carolina last weekend, he decided to implement a strategy similar to the “opener” philosophy made famous by the Tampa Bay Rays in recent years. Under this plan, top reliever Franco Aleman got the start and was expected to pitch three or four innings. Usual ace Tommy Mace would then enter in relief and be expected to finish the game.
The No. 15 Gators followed that formula to perfection in their 4-1 win over No. 3 Ole Miss in the series opener at Florida Ballpark. Aleman and Mace combined to give up just four hits and strike out 10 Rebels, while walking just two.
From the outside looking in, O’Sullivan’s decision to move his best pitcher to the bullpen might’ve reeked of desperation, a Hail Mary of sorts after nothing else had worked. However, he said that this was a carefully thought-out decision. It wasn’t as simple as saying “What do we have to lose?”. He first thought of the plan while traveling back from South Carolina last weekend. He slept on it and decided to move forward with it on Monday.
“I think you guys are looking into it way too much,” O’Sullivan said. “This thing was not a knee-jerk reaction, and I’m not going to make it a bigger story than it is. We went through this before the game. Tommy was going to do the exact same routine that he always does. To be honest with you, I don’t really want to talk about it, and I’m not going to answer questions about Tommy’s mood or how he took it. He took it great. He’s a great teammate.”
Aleman continued his recent resurgence after his rough start to the season, using his mid-90s fastball and wipeout slider interchangeably to keep the Rebels (20-5, 6-1 SEC) off balance. He gave up three hits and struck out three in four innings of work.
He retired the Rebels in order in the first inning before encountering baserunners in each of his final three innings.
Hayden Dunhurst reached base on a fielder’s choice with one out in the second inning. Aleman got Jacob Gonzales to fly out and Ben Van Cleve to strike out to end the inning.
Ole Miss used some small ball to tie the game at one in the third inning. Hayden Leatherwood led off with a single and advanced to second on a passed ball by Mac Guscette. A groundout by T.J. McCants moved him to third, and he scored an unearned run on a sacrifice fly to center field by Peyton Chatagnier.
The fourth inning started off in similar fashion. Kevin Graham led off with a single and advanced to second when a cross-up between Aleman and Guscette resulted in a passed ball that left Guscette in tears and struggling to move his wrist. This time, however, Aleman preserved the tie game by getting Dunhurst and Gonzales to ground out.
Mace took over from there and looked as sharp as he has all season. He gave up just one hit and struck out seven batters in five innings, though he did walk a pair of batters. He consistently painted the edges of the strike zone with his fastball and had good depth on his breaking ball.
He retired the side in order with two strikeouts in the fifth and yielded just a leadoff single to Chatagnier in the sixth.
He got Van Cleve to ground into a double play to erase a leadoff walk and end the seventh inning.
In the eighth inning, McCants drew a one-out walk and stole second base with two outs. Mace struck out Justin Bench swinging to keep what at the time was a one-run lead intact.
Mace struck out the side in the ninth inning to put a punctuation mark on the night.
Offensively, the game was a mixed bag for the Gators (17-8, 4-3). They managed only six hits and went just 2-for-10 with runners in scoring position. They left some runs out there with some head-scratching baserunning mistakes. However, they cut down their strikeout total to a much more manageable eight after striking out 15 times per game against the Gamecocks. They also picked up a couple of key hits when they needed them.
Jacob Young started things off in the first with a double down the left field line. Nathan Hickey followed with a double of his own two batters later to give the Gators the early 1-0 lead.
“I know my job is to kind of get this team going any way I can,” Young said. “It doesn’t matter how I get on base. Get on base, and let the big guys behind me drive me in. I was just trying to get on, and luckily I got a pitch up and put it down the line, and Hickey did the rest.”
In the bottom of the fourth, with the score now tied at one, Kirby McMullen led off by reaching second base on a throwing error by Bench at third base. Jordan Butler put runners on the corners with nobody out by reaching on a fielding error by first baseman Tim Elko. On a hit-and-run, Sterlin Thompson struck out swinging. Dunhurst, the catcher, faked a throw to second and fired back to third. He caught McMullen too far off of the bag for the second out.
Colby Halter picked up McMullen by lining a single to right field to score Butler and give the Gators the lead. He was then thrown out trying to advance to second. That should’ve been a two-run inning with a chance for more. Instead, they settled for just the one run.
Thompson was caught stealing by a mile in the seventh inning on a play that also saw Halter strike out. Thompson either thought he had to run since the ball hit the dirt or exercised poor judgment.
The Gators tacked on the final two runs of the evening in the eighth. Jordan Carrion led off with a single to left center field. Young followed by lining a pitch into the right center gap. McCants took a poor angle and allowed the ball to roll all the way to the wall for an RBI triple. Hickey scored Young two batters later on a groundout.
The win provided a much-needed feel-good moment for the Gators after getting swept last weekend and not having a midweek foe to take their frustrations out on.
“After last week, you kind of want to right the ship,” Young said. “We know we didn’t play well. We didn’t play how we should, and I think everyone kind of came in having that feeling to prove something. I thought we came out well. Franco threw amazing. We had some good swings, and then Tommy came in and kind of shut the door. It was a really good feeling.”
Now they have to do the exact same thing on Friday. Christian Scott, normally a reliever, will get the start and will be followed by Jack Leftwich.
O’Sullivan was pleased to get the win, but he knows this series is far from over. Ole Miss was undefeated in league play entering Thursday for a reason.
“We’re a program that has a tendency to respond when things don’t go really well for us,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ll see. This is one game. Obviously, we’re going to face another All-American type pitcher tomorrow. The weekend’s certainly a long way from being over. Ole Miss is very good. They’re ranked extremely high, and they’ve been playing at a high level, and we’re going to have to match this intensity again tomorrow.”