By Andrew Olson – OnlyGators.com baseball writer
No. 9 Florida Gators baseball (38-14, 17-10 SEC) trailed the Vanderbilt Commodores by three runs through seven innings in the rubber match of a pivotal series on Saturday when the team huddled around coach Kevin O’Sullivan in the dugout. Whatever O’Sullivan told his team, it worked. Florida finished the game with five-unanswered runs to post a 9-7 win in extra innings and take the series 2-1.
UF remains in play for a first-place finish in the SEC. When Sunday’s conference games concluded, the Gators were three losses behind first-place LSU. Vanderbilt also holds a one-game lead on Florida in the SEC East going into the final weekend. The Gators are currently fourth overall in the SEC and can keep themselves alive for a first-round bye in the 2015 SEC Tournament if it remains in that position or makes a gain over the final week of the season.
Even more important in the big picture, the series win for UF (No. 10 RPI) over VU (No. 12 RPI) could be a deciding factor when the selection committee hands out the eight national seeds for the 2015 NCAA Tournament.
No conference has ever been awarded four national seeds, and Texas A&M (No. 4 RPI) and LSU (No. 6 RPI) are already considered locks from the SEC. Florida is 26-5 this season at home and would benefit greatly from homefield advantage during Regional and Super Regional play.
All that being said, here are five takeaways from this weekend’s series:
1. No fluke: Sophomore left-handed pitcher A.J. Puk (7-3, 4.73 ERA) proved last week’s stellar outing against struggling Georgia was not a fluke. The hard-throwing southpaw set a new career high with 12 strikeouts in seven strong innings against Vanderbilt in Nashville on Friday night.
2. Big bounce back: Sophomore right-handed hurler Logan Shore (6-5, 2.85 ERA) picked up a loss in Thursday’s pitchers duel with Dores ace Carson Fulmer, but his bounce-back outing after getting shelled last week against the Bulldogs was encouraging for the Gators. In most games, an outing like Friday night (7.0 IP, 6 H, ER, 3 BB, 5 K) would have earned Shore a victory.
3. Stellar performances at the plate: Freshman second baseman Dalton Guthrie recovered from a 1-for-14 weekend in Georgia by going 4-for-12 in Nashville. Freshman catcher JJ Schwarz came through with a game-tying single in the ninth inning of Saturday’s finale as part of his 5-for-10 weekend, which included a home run and four RBIs. Freshman C Mike Rivera did not have the same good fortune at the plate, however, going 1-for-10 this weekend.
4. Uncharacteristic miscues: The Gators went 51 games without committing more than two errors, but made four mistakes in Saturday’s series finale. Florida entered the series with an NCAA-leading .986 fielding percentage.
5. Finishers: Regardless of the situation, the Gators seem to finish strong in series finales. Saturday’s win improved UF’s game-three record to 12-1. That mark is especially impressive considering the backend of the weekend rotation has yet to feature a starter who can continuously pitch into the second half of a game. The current No. 3 starter, freshman RHP Alex Faedo, has struggled in his last two outings (4.0 IP, 7 H, 7 ER, 2 BB, 4 K).
This week: Florida ends the regular season by hosing the Auburn at McKethan Stadium in Gainesville, Florida, for a three game series beginning Thursday at 7 p.m. Game two is scheduled for Friday at 7 p.m. with the series finale being played Saturday at 1 p.m. All three games will be streamed live on SEC Network+ and not available on television.
Photo Credit: William A. England/The Alligator