The Gators played with fire for most of the game on Friday night.
After jumping out to an early 3-0 lead against No. 1 Arkansas, they squandered several opportunities to tack on runs and give themselves some breathing room.
On the mound, Hunter Barco and Jack Leftwich lived on the edge but only gave up two runs through 7 2/3 innings. They just kept finding ways to make the big pitches when they needed them against the SEC’s top offense.
Then they got burned.
Robert Moore tied the game with a two-out home run in the eighth, and Charlie Welch gave the Razorbacks a 4-3 series-clinching win over the No. 9 Gators with a walkoff double in the bottom of the ninth.
Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan seemed surprisingly upbeat after the game.
“I’m pleased with how we played,” he said. “Obviously, disappointed with the outcome, but we’ve gone on the road quite a few times this year and not played well. Other than one swing of the bat last night in a two-run game, and, obviously, tonight, we didn’t do what we needed to do in the last couple innings.”
UF (35-18, 17-12 SEC) roughed up Arkansas starter Caleb Bolden early. Nathan Hickey singled with one out in the first, and Kris Armstrong moved him to third with a double into the left field corner with two outs. Kendrick Calilao laced the first pitch he saw into left field to score both runs.
Sterlin Thompson launched a long home run to right field to lead off the second and expand the Gators’ lead to 3-0.
“I thought we played well,” O’Sullivan said. “I thought we came out and swung the bats a lot more aggressively tonight than we did obviously last night. Jumped out to a 3-0 lead, and I thought we played well for nine innings.”
The happy feelings didn’t last long. Christian Franklin took Barco deep to right with one out in the bottom of the inning. That seemed to rattle Barco, as he completely lost control for a few batters. He walked Moore and Cullen Smith and hit Casey Opitz to load the bases. Jalen Battles lined out to Jacob Young in left to plate a run, but Barco preserved the lead by striking out Braylon Webb.
Both starting pitchers settled in after their rocky starts. Bolden retired eight Gators in a row at one point and made it through four innings. He struck out seven batters.
Barco rebounded by throwing up four consecutive zeroes. He gave up just four hits and struck out eight Razorbacks (41-10, 21-8) in six innings. He stranded four runners on the basepaths in his final three innings.
“He did a really nice job,” O’Sullivan said. “I thought the home run, I want to go back and watch it tonight, I thought it was a good pitch. The ball got really deep in the strike zone, and I’m not quite sure how [Franklin] got the barrel to it. I didn’t think it was a pitch that was going to go out the other way. He certainly settled down after the second.”
Florida had a golden opportunity to put an exclamation point on a huge win in the top of the seventh. Thompson drew a leadoff walk from Caden Monke, and Young singled to left with two outs. However, Monke struck out Hickey swinging to end the threat.
Leftwich took the ball for the Gators in the bottom half of the inning and made it five consecutive scoreless innings for UF pitching.
He struck out the first two batters in the eighth before throwing a 2-2 slider on the inside part of the plate to Moore. Moore was all over it like he knew it was coming and drilled it onto the second deck of Arkansas’ baseball standalone facility beyond the right field wall.
“Credit Moore; he ran into one slider,” O’Sullivan said. “We had thrown him all fastballs, and [we wanted to] bounce that slider because he’s in swing mode and left it up just a little bit, and it was the first one he’d seen off of Jack, and, sometimes, you’ve got to tip your cap to the other team.”
Razorbacks’ all-world closer Kevin Kopps then mowed down the Gators in the top of the ninth.
Opitz led off the bottom of the ninth by lining a pitch into the left center field gap. Jud Fabian tried to cut it off, and he peaked up to see if he might have a play at second. That split-second loss of focus ended up being the Gators’ undoing. The ball rolled to the wall, and Opitz made it all the way to third.
Leftwich got Battles to pop out to Calilao at first for the first out. With a medium-deep fly ball certain to win the game for Arkansas anyway, O’Sullivan opted to go with five infielders and placed Young between first and second.
It didn’t matter.
Welch grabbed a bat as a pinch hitter and lined a full-count pitch over Thompson’s head to win the game.
The Gators will have to regroup quickly and try to salvage the final game of the series on Saturday at 3. While the SEC East crown and probably a national seed have flown by the wayside, the Gators would love to improve their seeding in the SEC Tournament and secure their regional hosting status for the NCAA Tournament. UF enters Saturday with the possibility of being as high as the No. 5 seed in next week’s SEC Tournament and as low as the No. 7 seed.