After Brian Johnson struggled on the mound last Saturday against in-state rival Miami, the lefty said he needed to put the 3.1-inning, five-run performance behind him.
Saturday afternoon against Florida Gulf Coast, Johnson did just that, tossing six strong innings in No. 1 Florida’s 8-3 win to clinch the weekend series.
“He was much more in control today,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “It was probably his best start as far as his stuff is concerned. He pitched back and forth, threw all of his pitches for strikes and looked in control and comfortable.”
Following his sub-standard outing in Coral Gables last week, Johnson worked on a few things in the days leading up to his next start.
The left-handed junior typically works at a fast pace on the mound, but against Miami he rushed his approach – and it cost him, as the Hurricanes knocked him around for nine hits before chasing him from the game.
“He likes to pitch quick,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “He likes to get his sign, get his pitch and go. We sorta slowed him down this week, gave him something to work on and he did a great job of keeping his pace going, not going too quick and I think that helped him throw his offspeed for strikes.”
Against FGCU at McKethan Stadium, Johnson not only threw his off-speed pitches for strikes, but he threw everything for strikes as he kept the Eagles (6-7) off balance for most of the afternoon, striking out a season-high six batters. Of his 86 pitches, 59 went for strikes and Johnson worked ahead most of the day by throwing first-pitch strikes to 14 of the 23 batters he faced.
After giving up a single to lead off the game, Johnson (2-0, 4.12 ERA) recorded nine straight outs, before a leadoff double in the fourth was manufactured into a run. In all, Johnson sat down 16 of the first 19 batters that came to the plate before his lone mistake of the outing: a pitch he left over the plate for FGCU designated hitter Andrew Valencia, who hit his second two-run homer of the series. That’s all the Eagles would get across the plate Saturday, though.
While Johnson said it was the best he has felt on the mound this season, he credited Zunino – who called most of the game – with making the right pitch selections all afternoon.
“We usually get on the same page most of the time,” Zunino said. “He got in a groove and from there it gets pretty easy. He was executing his pitches and I was just throwing numbers down and he was doing the rest of it.”
Not only did Zunino help Johnson out behind the plate, but he contributed early on in the batter’s box, too.
Eagles lefty Brandon Bixler struggled to find the strike zone early, throwing nine straight balls to start the game. He walked Nolan Fontana, hit Daniel Pigott with a pitch and then walked Preston Tucker before he threw his second strike, which turned into a two-run single by Zunino, who has six RBI this series.
Florida tacked on two more runs in the inning to give Johnson an early 4-0 lead to work with. The Gators didn’t stop there, either.
Bixler (2-2, 3.32 ERA) walked the first two hitters he faced in the second and Florida (14-1) put another run on the board thanks to a Tucker sacrifice fly.
The Gators got a sixth run two innings later when freshman Josh Tobias stole home. After reaching on a single, stealing second and advancing to third on a walk to load the bases, Tobias stood at third while Tucker popped out to the third baseman in foul territory.
FGCU catcher Mike Reeves went out to the mound to talk to Bixler, but never asked the umpire for time. Tobias took a few steps off the bag, turned to third-base coach Craig Bell and then took off for home for the Gators’ second successful steal of home this season.
“It’s one of those weird plays,” O’Sullivan said. “It was a heads-up play, though.”
After falling behind, FGCU had a chance to tie the game in the seventh with the tying run at the plate and two men on base, but reliever Greg Larson induced a 6-4-3 inning-ending double play to preserve the lead and extinguish the Eagles’ last scoring threat of the night.
“It could’ve gotten hairy there (in the seventh),” O’Sullivan said, “If they got a base hit there, the next thing you know, things could’ve got a little interesting.”
Etc: Fontana hit a two-run homer in the eighth, his third home run of the season and the Gators’ third two-run shot of the series. … Daniel Gibson pitched a perfect ninth inning, striking out one. The sophomore lefty has pitched 5.2 scoreless innings this season and allowed just one hit and one walk. … The Gators were walked a season-high eight times Saturday. … The series concludes Sunday at 1 p.m. with righty Jonathon Crawford (1-1, 6.94) on the mound for Florida.
Contact Tom Green at [email protected].