By Andrew Olson – OnlyGators.com baseball writer
No. 6 Florida Gators baseball (33-12, 13-8 SEC) dropped two games to the Kentucky Wildcats over the weekend, marking the first home series loss of the season for UF as well as a fall from first place in the SEC East.
Florida came up on the short end of a pitchers’ duel in Friday night’s 3-0 loss. A wild, rocky start from sophomore right-handed pitcher Dane Dunning (4-2, 4.29 ERA) put the Gators in a hole they could not overcome, even with a late rally in the 7-6 series clincher for the Wildcats on Saturday. Florida avoided the sweep with a 10-1 thumping of Kentucky in Sunday’s series finale.
Here are five takeaways from the difficult weekend:
1. Streaky scoring: From the first inning of the Tuesday night’s game against Bethune-Cookman through the eighth inning of game two against Kentucky on Saturday, UF managed a meager four runs of offense in 25 innings. However, in the Gators’ last nine innings at the plate, they scored 14 runs. Suffice to say, more consistent offensive production might have tilted the UK series in UF’s favor.
2. Mixed bag from bullpen: Dunning’s rough outing (1.1 IP, 2 H, 4 ER, 2 BB, K, 2 WP, 3 HBP) put enormous pressure on Florida’s bullpen in game two. From the second through fifth innings, junior RHP Aaron Rhodes shut down Kentucky’s hitters, but the back-to-back solo homers he gave up in the sixth inning crushed UF’s spirit as its deficit dropped to 6-2. Sophomore RHP Frank Rubio entered in the seventh to end the UK threat, but he could not keep his inherited runner from crossing the plate. After allowing the RBI double, Rubio got out of the inning and tossed two more scoreless frames, though the five-run hole proved to be too much for the Gators’ offense.
3. Still coming up short: Throughout the 2015 season, Florida has shown admirable fight in its last at-bat. UF has faced deficits of four or more runs in the ninth inning before rallying against Tennessee, Florida State and Missouri … only to fall short. The Gators staged another impressive ninth-inning rally that ultimately didn’t change the outcome when it cut the Wildcats’ 7-2 lead to 7-6 on Saturday night. These rallies show that UF does not quit even when the going gets tough, but one can only wonder whether Florida might have two or three more wins this season if its bats could just get going earlier in the contest.
4. Ending on a high note: Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan elected to pinch-hit for freshman second baseman Dalton Guthrie in the ninth inning twice in the first two games of the Kentucky series. Guthrie did his best to regain O’Sullivan’s confidence by going 3-for-4 with three RBIs in Sunday’s 10-1 Florida victory. Junior shortstop Richie Martin snapped a 12-game hitting streak with a 0-for-5 night in game two, but he recovered with a 2-for-4 day in the finale.
5. Standings watching: In addition to getting a morale boost by avoiding the sweep, the Gators’ 10-1 win in Sunday’s series finale gave UF an outright claim to second place in the SEC East and fourth overall in the league. If Florida (13-8 SEC) can stay ahead of Missouri (12-9) and Arkansas (11-10) to manage a fourth-place finish, it will receive a bye in the opening round of the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Alabama.
This week: As the spring semester wraps up at UF, it’s time for final exams, which means no midweek game for the Gators. Florida’s next series will be in Athens, Georgia, for three games with Georgia Bulldogs: Friday at 7 p.m. (SEC Network+ live stream), Saturday at noon on ESPNU and Sunday at 1 p.m. (SEC Network+ live stream).