Preston Tucker’s first four plate appearances Tuesday didn’t go as planned.
Florida’s right fielder started the game 0 for 4 at the plate, with two groundouts and a pair of fly balls.
But with the score tied and the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth inning, Tucker finally came through.
The Gators’ slugger ripped a single to right-center field to plate Cody Dent for what proved to be the game-winning run as No. 1 Florida downed Bethune-Cookman, 8-6, in the team’s first midweek game of the season.
“You gotta put bad at-bats behind you,” Tucker said. “I just grinded out that last at-bat, put the ball in play and good things happened.”
The go-ahead RBI moved Tucker to within one of tying former Florida great Brad Wilkerson for the Gators’ all-time career record of 214. He nearly tied the record on the eighth-inning single, but Florida held shortstop Nolan Fontana at third.
That didn’t prevent the Gators from tacking on an insurance run two at-bats later, when Brian Johnson came through with a sacrifice fly to put Florida (3-1) ahead.
“As long as we got one in I was fine,” Tucker said.
“I knew we had [Mike Zunino] behind me and then Brian. I knew either way we were going to get at least one more across.”
Tucker’s late-inning heroics overshadowed a big night at the plate from Zunino, who started at designated hitter while Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week Taylor Gushue got the start at catcher.
Without the worries of calling a game, Zunino belted two solo home runs and extended his hitting streak to eight games dating back to last season.
Although Zunino hit .417 during opening weekend, the reigning SEC Player of the Year said he felt he was pressing too much at the plate with teams pitching him outside of the strike zone.
“I know I’m going to get pitched there most of the year,” Zunino said. “I just got too antsy that first weekend and was able to sit back in my stance [Tuesday] and get a couple pitches I can drive.”
After working on his swing and shortening his stride during Florida’s off day Monday, Zunino settled in against the Wildcats (2-2).
In the second inning, Zunino sent the first pitch he saw from Bethune-Cookman starter Scott Garner to the bleachers in left field to lead off the frame and start the scoring for the Gators.
Florida added three runs the following inning and another in the fourth, but the Gators’ middle relief gave up three runs of its own between the fifth and seventh innings to allow the Wildcats to take a 6-5 lead.
“There’s some things pitching-wise with the young pitchers we need to get a little better at,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “We need to pitch ahead a little bit and we need to put zeroes on the board the following inning when we score. … They’re young mistakes and they’ll get better as we move along.”
While the middle relievers struggled to sustain a lead for the second game in a row, Zunino’s bat came to the rescue again to lead off the seventh when he hit what O’Sullivan called a “no-doubter” to right field to tie the game.
The opposite-field blast, combined with Tucker’s late-inning hit, helped UF overcome a night when the Gators stranded 10 runners on base and gave Florida some momentum heading into Wednesday night’s home game against No. 19 UCF.
Freshman Johnny Magliozzi got the start for Florida, his first as a Gator. In 3.2 innings, Magliozzi allowed three earned runs on five hits, two walks and a hit batter. He also struck out three.
Austin Maddox picked up the win, throwing two innings of scoreless relief.
“It doesn’t get any easier,” O’Sullivan said. “We still haven’t clicked yet, we’re still knocking some rust off, so to speak. I don’t think we’re quite sharp yet, but we’ll get there.”
Contact Tom Green at [email protected].