By Andrew Olson – OnlyGators.com baseball writer
No. 4 Florida Gators baseball (46-16) advanced to the finals of the Gainesville Regional portion of the 2015 NCAA Tournament with an 8-2 win over the South Florida Bulls on Saturday evening. As such, the Gators are now one win away from hosting a Super Regional as part of the Round of 16.
Despite being the regional hosts and a top national seed, Florida played Saturday as the visiting team in McKethan Stadium. USF threatened early, taking advantage of a lead off walk in the bottom of the first inning to load the bases with two outs, but sophomore left-handed pitcher A.J. Puk (7.0 IP, 4 H, BB, 8 K) notched a scoreless frame on 29 pitches and got into a groove, at one point retiring 14 consecutive batters.
UF sophomore center fielder Buddy Reed (2/5, HR, 2 RBI, R) broke the scoring ice with a two-run shot in the top of the third. His effort was matched by junior left fielder Harrison Bader (2/5, HR, 2 RBI, R), who cranked one out in the Gators’ next offensive frame.
Sophomore LHP Kirby Snead (1.0 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, K) took over for Puk in the bottom of the eighth inning, and junior right-handed pitcher Taylor Lewis (1.0 IP, H) tied the game up.
Here are three takeaways from Florida’s decisive victory:
1. Puk on point: The growth and maturity of Puk were on full display Saturday. In earlier starts this season, a lead off walk and follow-up single would have snowballed into a big inning for the opponent. Saturday night, Puk battled, never lost his cool and eventually took control of the game. If he can continue to prevent early inning blowups, Puk gives Florida an incredible opportunity to advance deep into the NCAA Tournament.
2. Staying hot: Freshman catcher JJ Schwarz (2/4, R, BB) is now 6-for-10 in his first two NCAA Tournament games. Some freshmen fade toward the end of the rookie season, but Schwarz is not one of them, going 16-for-28 since the start of the postseason.
3. Bader leads the way: Bader is thriving in the lead off spot while freshman second baseman Dalton Guthrie (0/4, R, BB) recovers from a sprained wrist. In the middle of a slump, Bader previously slid to the No. 7 spot in the order before busting out at the end of the SEC Tournament. He not only contributed to the Gators’ early lead, he also made a highlight diving grab in left field and flashed some primo glove skills.