Tennessee uses clutch hitting to take game one from Gators

Friday night’s series opener between No. 12 Florida and No. 6 Tennessee was an exciting, back-and-forth affair full of emotional highs and lows. In the end, one team simply executed better in key situations, and that was the difference in the game.

The Volunteers parlayed four two-out RBI and a missed opportunity by the Gators in the seventh inning into a 6-4 win.

Tennessee went 5-for-13 (.385) with two outs and 4-for-9 (.444) with runners in scoring position. The Gators, meanwhile, went just 1-for-9 with two outs (.111) and 1-for-4 (.250) with runners in scoring position.

After a pair of scoreless innings to begin the night, the Volunteers (26-5, 8-2 SEC) opened the scoring in the bottom of the third. Logan Steenstra doubled to right field with one out off of UF starter Tommy Mace. Liam Spence followed with an RBI single up the middle.

Florida (20-10, 5-5) immediately answered back in the fourth. Nathan Hickey and Kirby McMullen opened the inning with back-to-back jacks off of Tennessee starter Chad Dallas to give the Gators a 2-1 lead.

In what became a recurring trend, the momentum didn’t stay in the Gators’ dugout for long. With two on and two out in the bottom of the fourth, Evan Russell lined a pitch into the right center field gap. Center fielder Jud Fabian caught up to it and had a play on the ball. However, he seemed unsure of how close he was to the wall and lost his concentration on the ball for a split-second. The ball ricocheted off of his glove for a two-run double that gave the Volunteers a 3-2 lead.

Mace retired the first two batters he faced in the fifth with ease. Then Jake Rucker lined a double into the right center gap. Drew Gilbert followed by singling up the middle on a 2-2 pitch to expand the lead to 4-2.

“We were pitching around Gilbert with a fastball off the plate with a runner at second,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “And then we had to throw a 3-2 slider, and then we left it out over the plate. All these runs count, and they’re all important.”

Mace bounced back to toss a scoreless sixth to end his night. He gave up four earned runs – three with two outs – on eight hits and struck out six batters. He didn’t have great command of his slider but battled through it to give his team a chance.

The Gators had a chance to reward Mace’s grittiness in the seventh, and they did, but only partially. Fabian led off with a home run to right center to cut the lead to 3-2. Jordan Butler reached on a fielding error by second baseman Max Ferguson, and Kris Armstrong grounded a single through the right side.

Colby Halter kept the line moving with a single to left center to tie the game at four and put the go-ahead run in scoring position with nobody out.

O’Sullivan decided to play some small ball and have nine-hole hitter Jordan Carrion attempt to lay down a sacrifice bunt. The move made since at the time since the Gators’ top-2 hitters were due up next in Jacob Young and Hickey. The execution, however, couldn’t have gone any worse. Carrion bunted foul three times for a strikeout.

“We’ve got to be able to get bunts down in that situation, obviously, on the road as well,” O’Sullivan said. “We almost made a baserunning mistake there in that bunt situation as well. We talked about that before the game. On a missed sac, the catcher’s going to throw behind and fortunate enough for us, they reviewed it, we were still safe. We’re still making mistakes that we’ve got to clean up.”

Young followed by hitting a ball about as hard as possible but right at Ferguson. Ferguson made the shoestring catch and doubled off Armstrong at second for the final out of the inning.

Instead of putting together a big inning and grabbing control of the game, UF settled for a tie that lasted all of 10 minutes.

Christian Scott replaced Mace on the mound to start the bottom of the seventh. Spence greeted him with a double down the left field line. Ferguson then laid down the perfect bunt that Carrion couldn’t. The ball hugged the line, and Ferguson picked up a single without a throw. Rucker lofted a sacrifice fly to Fabian to give his team the lead again.

Russell added an insurance run in the eighth with a two-out, two-strike homer to left off of Scott.

“In certain situations during the game, we need to make better pitches,” O’Sullivan said. “Just like the 0-2 slider there at the end, he’s got to bounce it. That’s the second time this year that that’s happened. We’re close, but we’re not there yet.”

Dallas gave up three earned runs on seven hits and struck out 11 Gators in seven innings to pick up the win. Sean Hunley retired all six batters he faced to record the save.

The Gators will look to even up the series in game two on Saturday. First pitch is scheduled for 7.

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.