If there are two things the Florida Gators (35-10. 15-5 SEC) can count on night in and night out, it’s pitching and defense. Those expectations weren’t met in Friday night’s Game Two matchup with the Auburn Tigers (31-13, 10-10 SEC).
Things weren’t going Florida’s way from the start as it dropped its third game in the last four outings.
Jackson Kowar took the mound as usual for the second game of the series, but could never get his best stuff going. Auburn took advantage, putting up three runs and almost as many hits in one inning as it did in nine on Thursday.
It started with back-to-back one-out singles for the Tigers, and Edouard Julien followed those up with a homer to left center. With Kowar’s breaking ball not hitting its marks and the wind blowing out, it was the perfect recipe for a big inning.
Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan preached that he wants a weekend where all three of his starting pitchers come out strong, but this weekend was not the one to do that.
“It’s just like yesterday—you just don’t know when those scoring opportunities are going to happen,” O’Sullivan said. “For them, it was the first tonight, and last night for us it was the first. You’ve gotta come out of the pen sharp. You’ve gotta be ready to go because you can lose a game in the first as well as you can in the ninth.”
Kowar allowed two more hits in the second inning, but got out unscathed, while the offense struggled with Auburn starter Tanner Burns.
Burns struck out three Florida batters in the first two innings, and retired every one he faced.
With Kowar settling in, the offense began to follow suit in the third.
Nick Horvath hit one over the bleachers in left field with two outs. Deacon Liput couldn’t let him have all the fun, so he took the first pitch he saw over the right center field wall. In a matter of a few pitches, the Gators were right back in it and only down 3-2.
If anything could explain Florida’s night perfectly, it would be what followed.
Kowar couldn’t take advantage of the life his offense finally started to show, and allowed singles to the first two batters of the fourth inning. The quick-footed Josh Anthony laid down a beautiful sacrifice bunt, and an errant throw from Jonathan India combined with freshman first baseman Brady Smith crashing when he shouldn’t have, allowed another Auburn run to cross the plate and put runners on second and third with no outs.
Kowar got the next batter out before intentionally walking two-hole hitter Steven Williams. Brett Wright hit a sacrifice fly in his at bat, and the Tigers took a 5-2 lead, essentially erasing the two timely home runs the Gators hit the inning before.
Kowar gave up a single and plunked an Auburn batter before making an early exit and handing the game over to Andrew Baker after 4.1 innings.
Baker walked the first batter he faced to load the bases with one out, struck out the next one, but a two RBI single from Will Holland tacked two more earned runs to Kowar’s total for the night.
Down 7-2, the Gators took advantage of an Auburn pitching change after Burns walked Blake Reese to start the bottom of the fifth.
Horvath reached as the third baseman couldn’t handle the hop on a hard hit ball, but Liput grounded into a double play to kill the momentum. Or so it seemed until Nelson Maldonado unintentionally perfectly placed a swinging bunt in no man’s land and the pitcher could not make a play on it.
Reese scored and Florida was back within four runs with four innings to put some more on the board against the Tigers’ bullpen.
Again, Auburn had an answer in the form of a two-run homer off the bat of Luke Jarvis.
If Florida had a chance to make it a game again, it was in the bottom of the inning. JJ Schwarz doubled off the glove of the right fielder with one out, then Austin Langworthy drilled a single through the left side.
Pitcher Cody Greenhill started feeling the pressure and losing his control. A wild pitch just over the mitt of the catcher scored Schwarz from third. Reese drew a walk and Horvath came through for the second time of the night with a single to score Langworthy on a close play at home.
Liput grounded out to the pitcher to strand the runners at second and third, and the Gators took it to the seventh down 9-5.
Tommy Mace came in for Baker to close out the game, and he did well in his first two innings, but the only offense Florida had to back him up was possibly the ugliest double of the season. Langworthy hit what looked to be a routine pop up behind third base in the eighth, but miscommunication between the defenders let the ball drop without a soul near it, and he took advantage by moving into scoring position.
Keenan Bell and Reese both hit the ball on the nose in their at bats behind him, but right at the defense, sending the game to the ninth.
That’s when things got hairy for Mace, and it essentially turned into Auburn batting practice. Three doubles and two runs later, Florida had a six-run deficit to try to overcome with three outs to go.
India came up to the plate with two outs and Liput on first base. He crushed one that looked like it would bring the Gators a couple runs closer, but the right fielder leaped up and stole his 15th home run of the season from him.
Florida hit some balls hard later in the game, but none of them were enough to overcome Auburn on a night that it simply had the upperhand.
“It’s baseball,” Langworthy said. “I hit a double that went 20 feet past the infield. That’s the way it goes.”
Kowar picked up just his second loss of the season in the 11-5 finish as the Gators gave up 15 hits to one of the worst offensive teams in the SEC.
Florida will switch things up to finish things out, with Jack Leftwich on the mound in place of typical starter Tyler Dyson. The Gators have yet to lose a weekend series this season, but that will be on the line on Saturday.