The No. 5 Gators did just about everything that you can’t do to have a chance to win a baseball game on Friday night versus Jacksonville.
Offensively, they generated just two hits and two runs through the first five innings off of Dolphins starter Tyler Santana. The top four hitters in the lineup went a combined 2-for-16 with five strikeouts.
On the mound, five Gators combined to surrender six earned runs on 12 hits. Every time the Gators scored, UF’s pitchers gave up multiple runs in the top half of the following inning. In fact, those innings accounted for all but one of the Dolphins’ runs.
Defensively, Florida committed four errors in the infield and experienced severe difficulties in fielding bunts down the stretch. As a result, Jacksonville tallied four unearned runs.
All of the mistakes added up to create what proved to be an insurmountable deficit. Trailing 10-5 heading into the bottom of the ninth, UF (11-4) got two-run home runs from both Josh Rivera and Jud Fabian. An infield single by Jordan Butler brought the potential winning run to the plate, but a once-in-a-decade type of comeback wasn’t in the cards. Jacksonville (4-8) held on for a 10-9 win to take game one of the series.
“We just got outplayed tonight,” Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “We got outhit. We got outpitched. We made four errors; they made one. They just played better. Simple as that. Anytime you’re playing an instate team, they’re all good. They’re all regional-type teams when it’s all said and done. So, I mean, you’ve got to play good.”
The game started off as a pitchers’ duel. Both Santana and UF’s Tommy Mace kept their opposition out of the hit column through the first three innings.
Butler picked up the first hit of the night in the bottom of the fourth inning with a line drive to right field. A fielding error by right fielder Duncan Hunter allowed him to move to second base. Sterlin Thompson followed with a well-struck line drive to left field. Left fielder Tommy Joseph got stuck somewhere in between playing the ball on a bounce and making an all-out effort to catch it. It landed and rolled under his glove and all the way to the wall for an RBI triple. Kris Armstrong followed with a sacrifice fly to right field to expand the lead to 2-0.
In what would become a recurring theme, the lead lasted about 10 minutes. A pair of singles and a walk loaded the bases with one out for the Dolphins in the fifth. Ruben Someillan delivered a two-run single to tie the game.
Mace turned in his worst start of the season. He didn’t have a consistent command of any of his pitches, and it took him 98 pitches to get through five innings. With UF’s bullpen somewhat thin due to injuries and underperformance, that proved costly.
The Gators retook the lead at 4-2 in the sixth inning when Armstrong hit a two-run opposite-field homer to left that bounced off of Joseph’s glove as he leapt at the wall.
Then the wheels fell off in the top of the seventh. Reliever Trey Van Der Weide induced a routine groundball to third off the bat of Trace Burchard. Kirby McMullen fielded it cleanly but fired the ball too high and forced Armstrong to leave his feet to make the catch. Jackson Grabsky followed with a single that hit the third base bag. After a successful sacrifice bunt, Someillan lofted a sacrifice fly to cut Florida’s lead to 4-3.
Christian Scott then replaced Van Der Weide on the mound and gave up back-to-back RBI doubles to Cory Heffron and Joseph that just stayed fair. Suddenly, Jacksonville led 5-4.
“I just think the more disappointing part is out pitching’s inability to go out there and have a shutdown inning,” O’Sullivan said. “I think that’s the more important thing or the most disappointing thing, and that’s been an issue in the past.
“It was really hard to get momentum tonight in our dugout; it was just really difficult because we just didn’t put up a zero once we scored.”
Christian Coipel led off the eighth with a single to center field off of Scott. Dakota Julylia tried to give the Gators an out by laying down a bunt, but both Scott and Armstrong went for the ball, leaving first base unoccupied for a hit. Pinch hitter Elias Flowers tried to do the exact same thing, and this time, Scott couldn’t field the ball cleanly for an error to load the bases with nobody out. Grabsky expanded his team’s lead to 6-4 with a sacrifice fly.
McMullen cut the lead in half in the bottom of the inning with a leadoff home run that cleared the left field bullpen.
Once again, the pitching staff and defense couldn’t handle the prosperity. Three consecutive singles off of David Luethje, including another perfectly placed bunt, loaded the bases with nobody out. Luethje walked Coipel to bring in one run before being replaced by Chase Centala.
Centala conceded a run on a sacrifice fly by Julylia. It looked like he would limit the damage to just two runs in the inning when he got Flowers to hit a ground ball to second. Instead, Colby Halter booted it for his second error of the game. Jesus Pacheco made the Gators pay for that mistake by lacing a two-run double down the left field line to make the score 10-5 and set the stage for the bottom of the ninth fireworks.
“I bet tomorrow and Sunday we don’t have any [errors] because we’re that type of team to do better the next day when we don’t perform,” Fabian said. “So, I feel like we’ll do a lot better on the defensive side of the ball the rest of this weekend.”
UF made a week’s worth of mistakes in one night. Even with the comedy of errors, they still had a chance to win the game. If they had committed only three errors instead of four or not walked a batter with the bases loaded or not waited until the late innings to get going offensively, those home runs in the ninth inning would’ve won the game instead of merely making it competitive.
“When you make that many mistakes, when you mess up some bunt plays and you make four errors defensively, you usually lose one-run games,” O’Sullivan said. “You make one less mistake or one less mistake here or there, and you end up winning the ball game. And we just did not deserve to win.”