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Monday, March 01, 2021

The Gators struggle out of the bullpen on opening weekend

After two difficult ninth innings on opening weekend, including a Saturday nightmare, Florida baseball knows exactly what needs to be better

<p><span id="docs-internal-guid-5bc8b538-7fff-3288-152c-aae3bcf810fd"><span>Since Kevin O’Sullivan took over as coach in 2008, UF has made the NCAA Tournament 12 consecutive times and has an overall record of 530-253.</span></span></p>

Since Kevin O’Sullivan took over as coach in 2008, UF has made the NCAA Tournament 12 consecutive times and has an overall record of 530-253.

In a series where the Gators recorded 38 hits and 22 runs across three games, it isn’t hard to identify which position group failed to deliver.

“The offense did their job,” head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said after Sunday’s series-ending loss to Miami. “The bottom line is, the pitching did not.”

It was unrealistic to expect the relievers to perform at the same level as 2020. Florida’s closing pitchers were on another level in the first 17 games a year ago, with six bullpen pitchers having an ERA under 1.50 and five having a WHIP under 1.00. The Gators had one stretch of 22.2 scoreless innings from the bullpen between Feb. 29 and March 6 last year. 

But the level of discrepancy between this and last weekend was beyond what anyone predicted.

Friday’s season-opening victory foreshadowed the tone of the week. Despite Florida walking away with a 7-5 win, a trio of arms allowed four Hurricane runs in the final frame before closing out opening night. 

Freshman Chase Centala started the ninth inning but failed to record an out after a single and a pair of walks loaded the bases. Centala was then pulled for Ben Specht, who coaches named to the preseason All-SEC Second Team before the year. 

As a part of Florida’s dominant 2020 campaign, Specht had a 0.75 ERA and a 0.83 WHIP in nine appearances. One of the most reliable Florida arms, Specht was credited with a trio of saves and 16 strikeouts against only six hits in 12 innings of work. 

He allowed a double, a sacrifice fly and a single before he, too, was pulled. All of the sudden, two pitchers combined to allow five baserunners, three runs and only a single out. It didn’t affect a game the Gators lead 7-1, but it was enough to raise an eyebrow.

Those ripples morphed into a riptide Saturday.

Florida held an 8-3 lead after seven innings and an 8-5 advantage entering the ninth as junior transfer Franco Aleman walked to the mound.

Five walks and a hit batter later, Aleman gave up the mound in a tie game. Not trailing until the 13th inning, the Gators walked away with a shocking loss. Florida brought home nine runs and connected on 14 hits but it wasn’t enough to clinch the series.

However, credit must be given where credit is due. The Gator bullpen buckled down Sunday and blanked the Hurricanes for the final five innings. They gave the Florida offense every chance to overcome an early 8-0 deficit before they fell short for the day and the series.

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Not every reliever disappointed, either. 

Christian Scott, who threw the most total innings on the team (5.2), didn’t earn a single run and only surrendered two hits to start the season. His opposing batting average of .111 was the second lowest on the team. 

Florida’s bullpen is by no means beyond repair. But it was the difference between a win and a loss inthe opening series against Miami. 

Miami isn’t the only good team on Florida’s schedule. If the Gators truly want a national championship, this first weekend must prove to be an aberration rather than a norm.

Contact Ryan Haley at rhaley@alligator.org or follow him on Twitter @ryan_dhaley

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Ryan Haley

Ryan Haley is a second-year journalism major with a sports & media specialization from Jacksonville, Florida. He grew up playing a bunch of different sports before settling on golf, following Rory McIlroy and all Philadelphia sports teams. He also loves all things fiction, reading, watching shows and movies and talking about whatever current story or character is in his head.


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