By Andrew Olson – OnlyGators.com Contributor
No. 25 Florida Gators baseball (23-13, 9-6 SEC) sits atop the Southeastern Conference East division after coming through big over the weekend by taking two of three from the No. 4 South Carolina Gamecocks (28-7, 8-5) in dramatic fashion on the road at Carolina Stadium in Columbia, SC.
Florida jumped out to a 1-0 advantage in the first inning of the series opener, but it was the only run it could muster against South Carolina lefty Jordan Montgomery, who struck out eight batters. A one-out walk issued in the fifth by UF freshman right-handed pitcher Logan Shore (7 IP, 6 H, 4 ER, BB, 2 K) snowballed into a three-run inning for USC, which added an insurance run in the seventh and held on for the 4-1 victory.
The Gamecocks looked to be on their way to securing a series win during game two on Saturday, but the Gators turned things around in a major way with just six outs to go.
Trailing 3-0 in the eighth, Florida started a rally when freshman first baseman/LHP A.J. Puk (1/2, RBI, R), in as a pinch hitter with one on and no one out, doubled to score freshman left fielder Buddy Reed (1/3, R), who led off the inning by bunting his way on base. Sophomore shortstop Richie Martin (1/6, RBI) brought Puk home with a single to right field, cutting his team’s deficit to a single run.
The Gators left three on base in the eighth but made up for it in the ninth when redshirt junior Zack Powers (1/1) led off with a pinch-hit single. Sophomore Jason Lombardozzi came in as a pin runner and knotted the game at 3-3 on a sacrifice fly by junior second baseman Casey Turgeon (0/4, RBI).
Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan led his team through extra innings by managing to get the most out of a pair of two-way players. Puk, who played first after coming in as a pinch hitter, moved to the mound in the 10th, tossing 1.2 scoreless frames before moving back to the bag. But Puk was far from done at the rubber as O’Sullivan sent him back for a second appearance after junior RHP Justin Shafer recorded a pair of outs.
Shafer (0/1, RBI) returned to right field and hit a sacrifice fly to score sophomore outfielder Harrison Bader (3/6, R), giving the Gators a late 4-3 lead in the 13th. Puk (3.1 IP, H, BB, 3 K) tossed a clean 13th to seal the deal for UF.
“What can you say about the job A.J Puk did?” O’Sullivan rhetorically asked after the game. “He comes off the bench and hits a double on an 0-2 pitch to left-center and pitches like a veteran. I think he grew up an awful lot today … And Shafer, he comes in from right field, gets an out there and throws his slider for a strike to get us out of a jam, and then turns around and gets a sac fly there in the 13th.”
Sunday’s finish failed to rival Saturday night’s excitement but was nevertheless another big come-from-behind victory for Florida.
Trailed 4-2 after seven innings, Gators recorded three straight one-out singles to load the bases in the eighth. Freshman third baseman Peter Alonso (1/4, RBI) drove in two off a fielder’s choice hit to short, Powers (1/4, RBI) doubled to left to plate a third run, and Reed (3/3, RBI, R) singled in a fourth. Suddenly, UF led 6-4.
Sophomore right-hander Eric Hanhold (2 IP, H, ER, BB, 2 K) saw Florida’s newfound lead get cut in half by giving up up a solo home run in the eighth, but he ultimately recovered to preserve the 6-5 victory and huge series win.
The Gators will look to close out their eight-game road trip on a high note Tuesday in Fort Myers, FL against the Florida Gulf Coast (24-13). UF and FGCU split two games in Gainesville, FL earlier this season.
Due to the time and space commitments of the NCAA Tournament and spring football practice, OnlyGators.com’s coverage of the baseball team has been slacking even while Florida has been doing anything but on the diamond.
Since UF’s disappointing 1-3 round robin weekend against the aforementioned FGCU and Illinois at the beginning of March, O’Sullivan’s squad has drastically turned things around. The offense is starting to produce more consistently, and the Gators’ young pitchers are growing up fast. In fact, the two victories against South Carolina give Florida an impressive 8-1 record against top five-ranked teams.
The first of those victories came on March 18 in Gainesville when UF took down No. 1 FSU 3-1. The Gators clinched the series on March 25 in Jacksonville, FL with a 4-1 victory over the Seminoles, and Florida swept Florida State with an 8-0 thumping in Tallahassee, FL on April 8.
UF’s sweep of FSU was the second of O’Sullivan’s seven-year tenure (2012) with the Jacksonville win in the three-game, multi-site series serving as his second in 10 tries against the in-state rival at a neutral venue.
Aside from those games, the Gators have posted a combined 12-6 record in the last month or so against Southern Miss (1-0), Connecticut (3-0), Illinois State (1-0), Arkansas (2-1) – a seven-game winning streak – Texas A&M (1-2), LSU (3-0), Florida Atlantic (0-1) and Kentucky (1-2). LSU was ranked No. 4 when Florida swept it in Gainesville.
All of a sudden, halfway through the SEC regular-season slate, the Gators in the SEC East driver’s seat. Florida will play nine of its final 15 conference games at home and only hit the road for seven of 20 games over the next month.
Photo Credit: William A. England/The Alligator