Punchless Gators fall to Stetson

You got the feeling early on that the No. 9 Gators’ game at Stetson on Tuesday night could be one of those midweek clunkers that even the best teams experience from time to time.

After all, UF was coming off back-to-back emotional SEC series wins. They’ve got a big rivalry series against Georgia coming up this weekend. They’re only two games out of first place in the SEC East with six games to go. They’re right in the middle of the regional and super regional hosting conversations. They’d already defeated Stetson three times this season.

Tuesday night’s game in DeLand, quite frankly, meant nothing to the Gators in the big picture.

And they certainly played like it.

Florida mustered only three hits and gave up six runs over the final two innings, as they fell to the Hatters 6-1. The loss ended their eight-game winning streak against Stetson that dated back to the year prior to coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s arrival in 2007.

A horrendous offensive showing was the primary culprit. The Gators (33-15, 15-9 SEC) entered the game having reached double figures in hits in 11 of their last 14 games. All they got against Stetson was a single and a double from Kirby McMullen and a pinch-hit double from Sterlin Thompson after the outcome had essentially been decided. They received eight free baserunners via walks and errors but stranded nine runners on base.

“With how well we’ve been swinging the bats for almost a month now, I’m not quite sure why tonight went the way it did,” O’Sullivan said. “But we’ve just got to regroup. The game did not come down to the eighth inning. If we would’ve done what we were supposed to do offensively, we might not have been in that position.”

UF’s only run of the night was basically gifted to them by the Hatters in the second. Stetson (25-20, 10-8 Atlantic Sun) starter Garner Spoljaric walked McMullen and Cory Acton. Cal Greenfield loaded the bases with two outs when the first baseman booted a routine groundball. Jacob Young followed with a groundball to third base. Banks Griffith scooped it up and tried to tag Acton going by for the easy out. He missed, and by that time, he had no chance of getting Young at first. McMullen scored to give UF a 1-0 lead.

For a while, it looked like that lead might hold up. Brandon Sproat was terrific in his first career start, giving up just one hit and one walk in four scoreless innings. He gave up his only hit to Danny Martin to lead off the fourth but immediately erased him from the basepaths with a line drive double play off the bat of Kyle Ball.

Sproat’s mid-to-upper 90s fastball was no match for the Hatters, but he never gained control of his breaking ball, something that would’ve likely hurt him against an SEC opponent.

“I thought he threw the ball really good,” O’Sullivan said. “We had a really good conversation yesterday, and I gave him the story of Tyler Dyson in ’17 when he got really going there toward the latter part of the year and was a huge piece of the puzzle and one of the main reasons we won a national championship that year. I told him that even though the year may not have gone the way he wanted up to this point that he can certainly still finish strong, and I was really pleased with how he threw the ball tonight.”

David Luethje replaced Sproat on the mound to start the fifth. He walked Eric Foggo and gave up a single to Jorge Arenas with one out. Luethje came through in the clutch to preserve the lead by striking out Nick DiPonzio and getting Jake Murphy to ground out.

Trey Van Der Weide recorded the final out of the sixth before running into trouble in the seventh. Griffith and Foggo led off with singles. Arenas dropped down a sacrifice bunt, but Van Der Weide threw it away to load the bases with nobody out.

O’Sullivan turned to top reliever Christian Scott to try to wiggle out of the mess. Scott gave up a pinch-hit single to Ryne Guida to tie the game but incredibly struck out the next three batters to keep the game tied.

In order to keep Scott as fresh as possible for the weekend, O’Sullivan opted not to bring him back out for the eighth, instead handing the ball to Ben Specht.

Specht was one of the top closers in the country in the abbreviated 2020 season, but his 2021 campaign has been a nightmare. That unfortunately continued against the Hatters.

Specht had no trouble getting ahead of hitters, but he couldn’t finish them off. He plunked Ball with a 1-2 pitch before giving up a single to Hernen Sardinas on an 0-2 offering. Griffith gave Stetson the lead by reaching on a fielder’s choice to shortstop Josh Rivera. Foggo blasted a 1-2 pitch over the wall in left center.

Specht hit Arenas with a 2-2 pitch prior to giving up a single to Connor Kehl. Ryan Cabarcas replaced him on the mound and surrendered a two-run double to Andrew MacNeil.

The Gators will try to flush this eyesore of a game from their collective memory and get ready for a ginormous series against Georgia. If they win that series, they should be a lock to host a regional at the very least.

O’Sullivan expects his team to play like themselves again this weekend.

“We’ve put ourselves in a position now where we’re being considered as a regional host, and we still have the SEC within striking distance,” he said. “If we can make a real run here these next two weekends, we could put ourselves in a position, possibly, to be one of the top-8 national seeds. We’ve got a lot to play for. I’d expect us to come out with the same intensity and energy that we’ve had over the last three or four weeks, and, like you said, we have a lot to still play for, and it’s our last home series. So, I would expect it to be a good weekend for us.”

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.