By Andrew Olson – OnlyGators.com baseball writer
No. 10 Florida Gators (28-9, 9-6 SEC) rebounded from last week’s disappointing road trip (1-3 vs. Florida State and Missouri) by displaying an abundance of offense and sweeping its four-game homestand against the Stetson Hatters and South Carolina Gamecocks. Florida scored in every inning of its 22-2 win over Stetson on Tuesday. Gamecocks pitchers did not fare much better against the Gators as UF outscored USC 38-10 in the series (14-3, 12-5, 12-2) to notch its first SEC sweep of the season.
Here are five takeaways from Florida’s near-flawless week:
1. Binging on taters: Freshman catcher JJ Schwarz made this week one he will never forget with four home runs in five at bats on Tuesday night against Stetson. But that wasn’t enough for the rookie slugger, as he punished South Carolina pitchers for three more round-trippers over the McKethan Stadium fences during the weekend series. Schwarz is one of many college players enjoying the NCAA’s new baseball with modified seams, which was introduced this year. A recent report showed a 39 percent increase in home runs this season as of April 1. Even with the inflated numbers, it’s noteworthy that Schwarz’s seven round-trippers this week tops the six home runs hit last season by former catcher Taylor Gushue to lead the Gators.
2. Others overshadowed: Schwarz wasn’t the only Florida batter with a special night at the plate against Stetson. Freshman second baseman Dalton Guthrie launched the first two home runs of his career during the Gators’ hit parade against the Hatters. Guthrie has been a perfect fit at the leadoff spot this season with his .321 average. The last time Florida had a leadoff hitter with noticeable pop was current Houston Astros prospect Nolan Fontana, who hit .284 with nine homers in 2012. Fontana’s replacement at shortstop, junior Richie Martin also had a career day Saturday (3/5, HR, 6 RBI, 2 R) in UF’s 12-5 win.
3. No easy outs: Florida’s Nos. 1-9 hitters gave USC pitchers fits. Even the bottom of the order got in on the action with all nine starters registering hits in Friday’s 14-3 win. Sophomore right fielder Ryan Larson (5/8, 2 RBI, 4 R, SB) provided a boost from the nine hole in two starts Saturday and Sunday.
4. Re-tooled rotation: Freshman right-handed pitcher Alex Faedo (3-1, 2.12) secured the third starting spot in the weekend rotation with a stellar outing (5.2 IP, 2 H, ER, BB, 6 K) in the South Carolina series finale. It appears Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s strategy is to slide sophomore right-hander Dane Dunning (4-1, 3.19) in the Saturday starting slot and use sophomore left-hander A.J. Puk (6-3, 5.88) from the bullpen to “piggyback” Dunning.
5. Following the script: On April 13, 2014, the Gators ended the first half of conference play with a big series win over the Gamecocks, sporting a 9-6 SEC record at the time. The momentum from that series win propelled Florida to victories in its next 10 conference games, including sweeps of Georgia, Missouri and Alabama. Just like last year, UF is currently 9-6 in the SEC coming off a strong showing against South Carolina. This season, Florida’s second-half SEC schedule includes three road series, most notably a visit to Nashville to face defending national champions Vanderbilt, currently ranked No. 2 nationally. UF is 2-4 in league road games so far, dropping two-of-three contests against both Ole Miss and Missouri. Florida’s performance on the road in the second half of SEC play could help the NCAA selection committee decide whether UF is deserving of a national seed and potential Super Regional post.
This week: Florida and in-state rival Florida State close out their season series Tuesday in Tallahassee (6 p.m., ESPN3 stream). The Gators and Seminoles split the first two games with UF winning 14-9 in Gainesville on March 17 and FSU taking the neutral-site Jacksonville contest 8-1 on March 31. Florida’s road trip continues to one of college baseball’s premiere atmospheres in Starkville, Mississippi, for a weekend series with Mississippi State. Fans can catch a live stream of the series opener Friday at 7:30 p.m. on SEC Network+. The final two games of the series will be televised on the SEC Network (Saturday, 3 p.m.) and ESPNU (Sunday, 3 p.m.).