Rivera swings Gators past Georgia in game one

You never know who’s going to be the hero for the No. 9 UF baseball team.

Jordan Carrion smacked a home run and pitched 1 2/3 innings in a series-clinching defeat of Ole Miss. Kris Armstrong launched a pinch-hit three-run homer to salvage the final game at Tennessee. Kendrick Calilao lined a walk-off home run against Florida State. Cory Acton and Calilao shared the spotlight after they ignited a ninth-inning comeback at Kentucky.

On the mound, Tommy Mace, Jack Leftwich, Hunter Barco and Christian Scott have all had moments of brilliance.

You can now add Josh Rivera’s name to the list of heroes.

Rivera’s two-out, two-strike single in the bottom of the eighth inning provided the Gators with the winning run and allowed them to overcome some baserunning and fielding mistakes to take the opener from Georgia, 4-3.

The rally started when Georgia’s top reliever, Ben Harris, walked Armstrong on four pitches with one out. Harris then grazed Kirby McMullen’s heel with a slider to put a pair of runners aboard. Armstrong advanced to third on Calilao’s flyout to right.

Up stepped Rivera, looking for redemption. In the fourth, he flew out with runners on the corners and two outs. With a couple of runners on in the sixth, he lined out to center, and Armstrong was easily doubled off of second after he apparently expected the ball to drop in for a hit.

“It felt great, honestly,” Rivera said. “It was a hard game. We knew these guys were going to come for a battle, so that was really important. It was a big AB at least for me, personally, because I’d stranded runners out there in the previous innings. So, it was great to get that hit and finally have one fall for me and give us the lead. It was just great. Once I got to first, looked in there in the dugout, everybody’s going crazy. The crowd’s going crazy. It’s an unbelievable experience, and I’m just forever grateful for it.”

His final at bat didn’t start off all that promising, as he fell behind 0-2. However, he battled and fouled off three consecutive well-located pitches by Harris. After taking a ball that allowed McMullen to steal second, he lined a belt-high fastball into left field to score Armstrong.

“It’s amazing how the game always comes back to you, and he was presented obviously with an opportunity there in the eighth to have a really quality at bat, and he fouled off a lot of quality two-strike pitches and came through for us at probably the most pivotal time in the game,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “So, really proud of the way he was able to handle that adversity and obviously give us a chance to win the ballgame.”

Sterlin Thompson followed Rivera’s at bat by lining a ball hard but right at first baseman Chaney Rogers. Rogers picked it on a short hop and tapped the bag for the final out.

The top of the ninth quickly became scary for Gators fans. Rogers led off with a groundball back up the middle for a hit. Leftwich struck out Cole Tate for the first out before Fernando Gonzalez hit a soft popup that landed just in front of a diving Jud Fabian in center field for a single.

Leftwich quickly put out the fire, striking out Ben Anderson and Josh McAllister to earn his seventh victory of the year.

“He’s just really confident right now,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s executing pitches at a high level, and I think maybe earlier in the year in a situation like that he may have been maybe a little too fast. But he’s slowing the game down. It’s obvious he’s having a lot of fun. So, I’m just really, really pleased with how he’s obviously been able to solidify our bullpen at the back end.”

Both starting pitchers had their best stuff early on, which resulted in some ugly swings and a ton of strikeouts.

Calilao opened the scoring in the bottom of the second with a line drive that hit the batter’s eye in straightaway center off of lefty Liam Sullivan.

The Bulldogs (28-19, 11-14 SEC) wasted no time in answering. Cole Tate led off the third with a slow dribbler to McMullen at third. Rather than putting it in his back pocket like he probably should have, McMullen gunned a throw well wide of first base, which allowed Tate to reach second.

After Mace walked Anderson with one out, McAllister lined an 0-1 pitch in front of Jacob Young in left. Young delivered an accurate throw to the plate, but Tate snuck his hand into the plate before the tag to tie the game.

Garrett Blaylock gave Georgia the lead two pitches later with a sacrifice fly to center.

“Very aggressive team, swing at a lot of pitches, will swing in a lot of early counts,” Mace said. “I mean, first pitch of the game, fouled off. So, obviously, team’s aggressive, and you have to make quality pitches.”

The Gators (34-15, 16-9) used some rare small ball in the bottom of the frame to tie it back up. Thompson led off with a double into the left center field gap. He advanced to third on Acton’s sacrifice bunt and scored on Young’s groundout to shortstop Cole Tate.

Mace struck out three batters in a scoreless fourth and retired the first two batters in the fifth on nine pitches. It looked like he would get out of the inning very efficiently when McAllister chopped a 1-0 offering toward Rivera at short. However, Rivera waited back on the ball instead of charging it. That allowed the speedy McAllister to easily beat his throw to first.

Mace walked Blaylock, and Connor Tate won an eight-pitch at bat by lining a single to left to reclaim the lead for his team.

“I thought he threw the ball really well,” O’Sullivan said. “It was probably as good as he’s thrown it all year long. He probably lost an inning there. I think McAllister got the infield hit, and I think there was an extra 18 pitches thrown that inning, but he battled.”

Once again, Florida responded quickly. Acton grounded a one-out single up the middle, and Young smashed a pitch over left fielder Riley King’s head and to the wall. Acton hustled all the way around to score and tie the game at three.

Mace set down the Bulldogs in order in the sixth and put away the first two batters in the seventh. Mace’s night ended when McAllister lined a double into right center for his fourth hit of the game.

Mace had superb command of his fastball to all sides of the plate, which set up his curveball and cutter. He kept the Bulldogs off balance for most of the night. He scattered seven hits and struck out 10 batters in his first start in a series-opener in nearly two months.

O’Sullivan brought in Trey Van Der Weide for the left-on-left matchup with Blaylock, and he struck him out swinging on a slider in the dirt to end the seventh.

Leftwich entered to start the eighth and struck out five batters in his two innings. That’s 16 strikeouts that the Gators’ trio of pitchers accounted for.

With Tennessee and Vanderbilt both losing on Friday night, the SEC East race is suddenly very tight. Florida trails Tennessee by just one game. The Gators need to keep on winning and see where that takes them.

“It’s that time of year where you’re obviously interested in scores, but, at the end of the day, the only concern that we can have is really about ourselves because, if we play the way we’re capable, then we’ll put ourselves in a really good position regardless of what the other teams do,” O’Sullivan said. “Our focus needs to be on us and us only.”

Who knows? Maybe another hero or two will emerge along the way.

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.