Whiffs aplenty in Gators’ loss to Ole Miss

Baseball can become complicated with the modern technology that surrounds the game now. Just about everything is quantified, from launch angles to exit velocities to spin rates and more.

At its core, however, it will always be a very simple sport. It’s about making contact with a round rubber ball using a metal bat. You don’t even have to hit it hard all the time. If you put the ball in play, you might just catch a break that changes your fortunes.

The No. 15 Gators didn’t even give themselves a chance to be lucky on Friday night. They mustered just three hits and struck out 18 times in their 8-2 loss to No. 3 Ole Miss that evened the series. That means that a Rebels’ defense that committed two errors on Thursday only had to record nine outs.

“You don’t have to be real smart to figure out that when you only have to defend nine outs, you’re probably going to be pretty good,” UF (17-9, 4-4 SEC) coach Kevin O’Sullivan said.

All 10 Gators that batted in the game struck out at least once. Six of them struck out multiple times, led by Kirby McMullen and Jud Fabian’s three.

Ole Miss (21-5, 7-1) starter Doug Nikhazy struck out 11 batters in six innings. Drew McDaniel picked up two strikeouts in a scoreless seventh inning, and Taylor Broadway struck out five of the six batters he faced.

Every time it looked like the Gators were about to seize the momentum, a big strikeout squashed the rally before it materialized into much.

McMullen went down swinging with Jacob Young on second base with two outs in the first inning.

After a walk and an errant pickoff throw by Nikhazy put a runner on third with one out in the bottom of the second, Kendrick Calilao struck out swinging. Kris Armstrong picked him up with an RBI single that cut the deficit to 2-1, but Colby Halter struck out looking to end the inning. That had a chance to be a big inning, but it was derailed by the Gators’ inability to put pressure on a Rebels’ defense that was against the ropes.

Fabian broke his 0-for-19 slump with a long home run to left field to tie the game at two in the seventh inning. It felt like the Gators were poised to give Jack Leftwich a lead to work with. Instead, Sterlin Thompson and Armstrong struck out back-to-back. Those strikeouts allowed McDaniel to settle in.

“I really thought at that point in the game with how things had been going with Jud, the whole dugout was really, really excited for him,” O’Sullivan said. “We just needed to have a couple more good at bats there, and who knows what would happen? We had the momentum there, and we weren’t able to keep it.”

Friday night’s performance continued a disturbing trend of late. The Gators struck out 45 times in their series against South Carolina last weekend. It looked like they had potentially started to turn a corner when they only struck out eight times in the series-opening defeat of the Rebels. Unfortunately, they didn’t maintain that progress.

O’Sullivan said his team needs to better understand how they’re being pitched. They had some success jumping on early-count fastballs early in the Thursday game. From that moment forward, the Rebels have opted to heavily rely on their off-speed pitches. Ole Miss made its adjustments; now Florida needs to do the same.

“A lot of these teams get into patterns in pitch-calling,” he said. “If in the first at bat you hit a fastball hard, they’re probably going to slow the ball down in the second at bat. It’s really not that hard. You’ve got to figure out what the pitcher has the ability to do and what his best secondary pitch is, and if you continue to get out the same way, they’re not going to change their plan. If you hit a ball hard and have a good at bat, they’re probably going to go to something else the following at bat. It’s not rocket science, and we just got to do a better job.”

Meanwhile, the Gators pitched better than the final score indicates. Christian Scott made his first start since 2019 and struck out a career-high seven batters in five innings. He gave up just two runs on five hits.

He got better as his outing progressed. He gave up two runs on five hits in his first three innings. He then retired the final eight Rebels he faced in order.

“My two-seam fastball was kind of going where I wanted it to, inside and outside,” Scott said. “We just kind of had a game plan to go inside on their hitters, and I feel like I was able to go inside, especially on lefties. Slider was a good out pitch for me today. I got a lot of backfoot sliders to lefties that they swung through and the righties went fishing on.”

Leftwich took over from there and struck out three batters in a pair of scoreless innings before things came crumbling down in the eighth. Jacob Gonzalez mashed a monster two-run homer to right field to give the Rebels a 4-2 lead. They tacked on four more runs against Leftwich in the ninth for good measure.

Broadway struck out the side in the ninth to secure the victory for his team and set up what feels like a must-win game for the Gators on Saturday. To keep its fleeting SEC Championship and national seed hopes alive, UF can’t afford to fall below .500 in league play, especially with ranked Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Arkansas teams still ahead on the schedule.

They’ll need Hunter Barco to turn in his best start of the year and the offense to awaken from its weeklong slumber to get the series win.

“We’ve just got to be better offensively,” O’Sullivan said. “I think we were good for seven innings today on the mound, and then obviously it got away from us. You’re not going to win many games when you strikeout 18 times and get three hits. We’ve just got to do a better job offensively. It’s really that simple.”

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.