Against Missouri last year, A.J. Puk admittedly said that he threw some batting practice pitches against the Tigers, who roughed him up for nine earned runs.
On Saturday night, it was a different story. Puk had his best start of the season as he struck out a season-high 11 batters over seven scoreless innings as No. 1 Florida cruised to a 6-2 win, behind Puk and three solo home runs.
With the win, the Gators (20-1, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) have won 14 in a row and clinched their first conference series of the season.
Puk’s teammates have been joking with him about his start last year against the Tigers. He used it as motivation.
“I wanted to come out today and throw the ball way better than I did last year against them,” Puk said. “The guys, you know, they’ve been joking about it for a while. … I just wanted to come out today and compete.”
The Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native hasn’t had the best start to his junior season. After struggling with command his first three starts, Puk found his command against Harvard last weekend.
He finally put everything together against the Tigers.
“I’ve been kind of frustrated how my outing have been going throughout the start of the year,” Puk said. “I didn’t change anything up. I just went out there and just try to get ahead, I think that was the biggest part.”
The 6-foot-7 lefty didn’t run into much trouble on the night, and when he did, his defense picked him up. He induced a 6-4-3 double play to end the first inning and then after Missouri got its first two hitters on in the sixth, Puk got three Tigers to fly out.
He ended his night by striking out the side in the seventh, touching 94 mph on his final pitch, the 107th of his outing.
“It was one of those outings like he had the last third of the year last year. It was very reminiscent of that,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “Been kind of waiting for that so I couldn’t be more happy for him, more proud. … He pitched with power but he also pitched with precision.”
Florida opened scoring in the bottom of the second inning when Deacon Liput launched his first career home run. On a 3-2 count, the freshman got a hold of a Tanner Houck fastball and sent it over the right-field fence. He’s now reached base in all 21 games and is hitting a robust .397 after going 2-for-4 on Saturday night.
“It feels good to get one out of the way,” Liput said. “Personally, that’s not really me. I mean obviously it’s good to get one out of the way, but can’t really try to do that too often.”
Peter Alonso added a solo shot — his fourth home run of the year — in the bottom of the sixth to give the Gators a 4-0 lead, before Mike Rivera also hit his team-leading fifth home run of the year in bottom half of the eighth.
Alonso, Liput and Rivera combined to go 6-for-12 with the three home runs and five runs scored.
“Our players deserve all the credit,” O’Sullivan said. “They stuck their nose in there tonight and competed in the box.”
Missouri (14-8, 0-2 SEC) tried to mount a comeback the eighth inning, cutting the Gators’ lead to three runs. But after O’Sullivan made three pitching changes in the frame, reliever Shaun Anderson shut the door on the Tigers, earning his second save of the year.
Florida closes out its first SEC series Sunday at 1 p.m., looking for the series sweep. Alex Faedo is scheduled to draw the start for the Gators.