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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Schwarz’s homer propels Florida in first game of NCAA Tournament

<p>JJ Schwarz swings during Florida's 2-0 win against Miami on Feb. 25, 2017, at McKethan Stadium.</p>

JJ Schwarz swings during Florida's 2-0 win against Miami on Feb. 25, 2017, at McKethan Stadium.

JJ Schwarz has had a knack for hitting timely home runs when his team needed it most.

There was his eighth inning grand slam against South Carolina on April 22 that won the contest for Florida.

There was his seventh inning solo shot against Alabama on May 12 that sparked a comeback victory for UF.

There was even his eighth inning two-run blast against the Crimson Tide on May 14 that secured the Gators their 12th win in 13 games.

However, none of his nine regular season home runs were bigger than the one he hit on Friday night.

Facing Marist in its NCAA Tournament opener, Florida found itself in a neck-and-neck contest late despite being highly favored to win the game as the tournament’s No. 3 overall seed.

The Red Foxes had battled back from an early four-run deficit and were only down by one run against UF in the bottom of the eighth with two outs.

But like he’d done so many times before, Schwarz saved his best at bat of the night for last.

Facing newly-entered reliever Scott Boches with runners on first and second, the Gators catcher crushed a 3-1 pitch deep into the left field bleachers of McKethan Stadium, increasing Florida’s lead back to four and ruining Marist’s chances of an upset.

“I stepped in the box and had a lot of confidence in myself,” Schwarz said of the home run. “(Boches) fell behind and he grooved one for me and I put a good swing on it.”

The Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, native’s three-run homer was the exclamation point of UF’s 10-6 win over the Red Foxes. Schwarz had struggled in the contest up to that point, walking once and striking out three times, leading him to want to make the most of his final opportunity at the plate.

“I knew my first few at bats of the game weren’t my best at bats,” he said. “I knew I was going to put that behind me and I was trying to come up big for my teammates.”

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Early on for Florida (43-16), things appeared headed for a blowout after it took a 5-1 lead in the third inning.

Designated hitter Mike Rivera and center fielder Nick Horvath hit back-to-back RBI singles in the bottom of the second before third baseman Jonathan India hit a sacrifice fly to left field. In the following frame, Rivera hit another sac fly to bring in UF’s fifth run of the game.

The junior from Venice, Florida – playing in his first home game since April 9 after suffering a broken hamate bone in his right wrist – finished the night with a 1-for-3 performance at the plate with three RBIs and one run scored.

“I was just trying to keep it simple and not try to do too much,” Rivera said on his return to the lineup. “I’ve been working on my hand and trying to keep the soreness down, but I know I’m going to be sore for a little longer. I’m taking it day-by-day.”

After the Gators initial run through the first three innings of the game, the Red Foxes (32-22) fought back in the fourth behind a pair of defensive mistakes from Florida.

Back-to-back errors from shortstop Dalton Guthrie and pitcher Jackson Kowar allowed two runners to score for Marist before a sacrifice fly from left fielder Frankie Gregoire reduced UF’s lead to one.

Several frames later, with Marist still trailing by one run, Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan went to sophomore closer Michael Byrne out of the bullpen to retire the final eight outs of the game.

Byrne did just that, recording three strikeouts and only allowing one baserunner on the way to his 15th save of the season, the most in program history.

“It worked out perfectly,” O’Sullivan said. “Ideally, we did not want to bring (Byrne) in in the seventh, but he threw 25 pitches and was very efficient… He’s had a remarkable year for us.”

The win for Florida means it’ll face South Florida on Saturday night at 7 p.m. USF defeated Bethune-Cookman 9-1 in its first game of the Gainesville Regional and beat UF 15-10 earlier this season in the only matchup between the in-state rivals.

Contact Dylan Dixon at ddixon@alligator.org and follow him on Twitter @dylanrdixon.

JJ Schwarz swings during Florida's 2-0 win against Miami on Feb. 25, 2017, at McKethan Stadium.

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