By Andrew Olson – OnlyGators.com baseball writer
No. 9 Florida Gators baseball (36-13, 15-9 SEC) went 3-1 in its recent four-game stretch against the Georgia Bulldogs and South Florida Bulls.
On paper, it should have been an easy sweep for the Gators, but the Bulldogs (22-25, 7-16 SEC) put up a fight until the final out. UGA shocked UF with an 11-1 upset win in the Friday’s opener. Runs were scarce in game two, but Florida managed to edge Georgia 3-2 and even the series. In Sunday’s finale, sophomore right fielder Ryan Larson hit a three-run double that lifted the Gators to a 7-4 victory for the series win. UF then topped USF 5-1 Tuesday night in Gainesville to close out the nonconference schedule.
Here are five takeaways from the past week of Florida baseball:
1. Shore scuffling: Sophomore right-handed pitcher Logan Shore (6-4, 3.01 ERA) has been up and down in year two after being named SEC Freshman of the Year at the end of his rookie season. Friday’s short outing against Georgia (2.1 IP, 5 H, 5 ER, 2 BB, 2 K) was his worst start of the year. With less than one month remaining in the regular season, Shore’s struggles become a major concern for the Gators, which are already weak in the starting pitching department.
2. Puk-ing good: After two seasons of hype, sophomore left-handed hurler A.J. Puk (6-3, 5.08 ERA) finally scraped his ceiling on the mound as everything was clicking for him in Saturday’s game. Throughout his college career, Puk has struggled to go late into games because he tends to issue a high number of walks and run up his pitch count. On Saturday against Georgia, Puk worked through six innings on 99 pitches with no free passes and a career-high 11 strikeouts. If he can replicate this outing throughout the final two months of the 2015 campaign, Florida’s postseason outlook improves drastically.
3. Bad spot for a slump: The lengthy college baseball season may be starting to catch up to freshman second baseman Dalton Guthrie. UF’s leadoff hitter went 1-for-17 over the past four games and looks to have hit the rookie wall. Guthrie’s glove will keep him in the lineup, and his .296 batting average suggests he’s bound to bust out of the slump, but right now it is difficult to justify giving him extra top-of-the-order plate appearances.
4. Seizing the momentum: The Gators have rarely buried their opponents in the early innings, but they have shown they can swing the momentum and take control of a game. In the fifth inning of Tuesday’s contest against USF, the Bulls cut the Gators’ lead to 2-1 and chased the Florida starter, sophomore RHP Dane Dunning, in the process. Florida answered with three runs in the bottom half of the inning and cruised to a 5-1 victory.
5. Pitching uncertainty: Considering freshman RHP Alex Faedo’s lackluster outing against Georgia (2.0 IP, 2 H, 4 ER, 2 BB, K) and Dunning’s Tuesday start, the Gators might try a new No. 3 starter. So far this season, the pitching staff has produced a wealth of relievers who can work two or three solid innings but not enough starters who can regularly deliver five or six shutdown innings.
This week and going forward: The most important series of Florida’s season starts Thursday when it travels to Nashville to take on the defending national champion No. 13 Vanderbilt Commodores. VU holds a two-game advantage over UF in the SEC East standings, but this weekend’s series has implications beyond a potential division title.
The Gators are currently on the bubble for a top-eight overall (national) seed in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. National seeds are awarded homefield advantage in both the Regional and Super Regional rounds of the event.
Florida had a 9th-ranked RPI entering Tuesday’s game and will need to impress the selection committee during its final two series – as well as the 2015 SEC Tournament — if they want to host a Super Regional in Gainesville. UF faces strong competition for a limited number of national seeds given to teams in its conference (No. 2 Texas A&M, No. 6 LSU, No. 13 Vanderbilt) and state (No. 3 Miami, No. 7 Florida State, No. 11 FAU). A series win over the Commodores would help the Gators’ resume drastically.
Thursday’s series opener can be watched live on ESPNU at 7:30 p.m. Game two will be live streamed online via SEC Network+ on Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday’s series finale will be televised on the SEC Network at 1 p.m.