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Saturday, January 16, 2021

Gators baseball plays first two scrimmages in new stadium

<p>Gate 1 of Florida Ballpark. <span id="docs-internal-guid-d87eaa6d-7fff-b7a6-1b82-8844035cfea0"><span>The new stadium, located next to Donald R. Dizney Stadium along Hull Road, has a capacity of over 7,000. </span></span></p>

Gate 1 of Florida Ballpark. The new stadium, located next to Donald R. Dizney Stadium along Hull Road, has a capacity of over 7,000. 

The Florida baseball team took the field for the first time this season during two in-team scrimmages on Thursday and Friday. Both returning and new Gators showcased their talents, but the real star was the brand new Florida Ballpark at Alfred A. McKethan Field.

After playing every season since 1988 at Alfred A. McKethan Stadium, it was announced that Florida’s baseball team would get a new stadium in March of 2018, with construction starting in February of 2019. The stadium was finally finished and ready to see action in August of 2020. 

The new ballpark, located next to Donald R. Dizney Stadium along Hull Road, has a capacity of over 7,000 and a potential expanded capacity of over 10,000. The grass of the field is now replaced by turf behind home plate. Perhaps one of the most important improvements made in the new park are the overhangs that shade a majority of the 4,000 navy-blue chairback seats, something that McKethan Stadium failed to provide in the hot Florida spring.

Florida Ballpark left berm

The view of Florida Ballpark from its left berm. The new stadium has a potential expanded capacity of over 10,000.

Every seat in the new park also has a clear view of the towering scoreboard over right field, framed by the words “Florida Ballpark” along the top. Both foul poles are outlined by grassy banks around the corners of the field that quickly give way to the centerfield wall, stretching out to 400 feet straightaway.

Florida Ballpark at Alfred A. McKethan Field

Florida Ballpark at Alfred A. McKethan Field after Friday's scrimmage. Construction of the new park finished in August of this year.

The park’s layout may seem familiar to many college baseball fans, athletes and even head coach Kevin O’Sullivan. 

“It’s got a little bit of an Omaha feel to it,” O’Sullivan said about the new park. 

The 360-degree open concourse and seating aspect of the park can also be found at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska, the home of the College World Series since 2011. The layout of the park is also mirrored after that of many MLB stadiums, offering Gator baseball fans a more immersive viewing experience. 

Stadium experiences have improved for the players as well, with an expanded locker room, indoor pitching and batting cages and enhanced training and rehabilitation areas all now available to the Gators.

While the team has been excited to break in the new facility, it was delayed a little more than they expected.

“Yesterday was the first day we were allowed into the locker room,” O’Sullivan said.

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The slow return was due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a team outbreak, forcing the program to push back its first fall practices. On Sept. 15, it was announced that 15 players on the team had tested positive, resulting in a pause of all team-related activities.

The delayed start did not dim the excitement for the players and coaching staff, though. The team began its fall baseball inter-team scrimmages on Thursday, with the players divided into Orange and Blue teams for six-inning games. 

Thursday’s scrimmage was anything but a low-scoring contest. After the Blue team scored a pair of runs in the bottom of the opening inning, junior first baseman Jordan Butler broke in the new field with a two-run shot to left off the standout junior pitcher Tommy Mace to tie the game in the top of the second. Centerfielder Jud Fabian had one of the plays of the day in the third inning when he caught a sac fly near the warning track. Fabian then fired a laser to third base to catch Cory Acton trying to tag from second, inciting some cheers from his teammates.

After more runs were traded back and forth, shortstop Josh Rivera saved the Blue team’s 6-4 advantage by leaping to grab a line drive from Butler with the bases loaded in the bottom of the fifth, ending the inning. The lead never got smaller from there, and the Blue team emerged with an 8-4 win.

The boys were back in action for another Orange and Blue scrimmage on Friday. Returning pitchers Hunter Barco and Jack Leftwich started the game strong for their respective teams, both giving up no runs through the first two innings of work. 

Jordan Butler stepped up to both the mound and the plate in Friday’s game. Butler gave up the first, and only, home run of the game in his first inning on the mound. Kris Armstrong took the lefty deep, the ball sailing over the fence in left-center field, giving the Blue team their only lead and run of the game. Butler was hot at the plate himself, earning the first hit of the game off Leftwich, a line-drive single to center field. Butler reached base on another line-drive single and a hit-by-pitch later in the game. 

Freshman catcher Mac Guscette made his presence known in the third inning with a hard hit ball, which sailed right over the head of the center fielder, scoring the first two runs for the Orange team. Veteran Kirby McMullen drove in another two runs with an opposite field triple that ran past the right fielder in the bottom of the fifth. The final result was a 4-1 win for the Orange team.

While no announcement has been made about the 2021 season, the performances from the two-day scrimmages could bring hope for a bright season and future for this Gator baseball team.

Contact Ryan Haley and Sara Kate Dyson at rhaley@alligator.org and skatedyson@alligator.org. Follow them on Twitter @ryan_dhaley and @sarakatedyson.

Gate 1 of Florida Ballpark. The new stadium, located next to Donald R. Dizney Stadium along Hull Road, has a capacity of over 7,000. 

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