With two outs and the tying run on deck in the bottom of the eighth, Florida shortstop Josh Rivera dug into the batter’s box to face Vanderbilt right-hander Nick Moldonaldo. The freshman fouled off four pitches before a called strike three stranded two baserunners and ended the inning.
Maldonado held the Gators scoreless in the bottom of the ninth to secure an 11-7 series-opening victory at Florida Ballpark Friday night.
“It’s just been like the same script over and over,” head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “Multiple times tonight we went out and gave up rebound runs after we scored.”
Florida right-hander Franco Aleman started on the hill and surrendered six runs in the first two innings. With two outs in the top of the first, Commodores catcher CJ Rodriguez drove home two runs with an infield single on a weak grounder that forced Rivera to attempt a difficult throw across his chest to first base.
“It’s disappointing because I did feel like Franco [Aleman] was ready to go tonight,” O’Sullivan said. “Once we fell behind 2-0, we just never really got a hold of the game again.”
An inning later, Aleman gave up a leadoff double and single to put runners on the corners with no outs. Center fielder Enrique Bradfield Jr. exploited Florida’s defense on a squeeze bunt, bringing in the runner from third.
Two batters later, Aleman beamed Vandy first baseman Dominic Keegan to load the bases before cleanup hitter Jack Bulger drove in two runs on a double down the first-base line. A Rodriguez groundout allowed Keegan to score as the Commodores doubled their first-inning output.
“When we’ve had these types of games in the past, just the excitement and the emotion on the mound has just been different and tonight it just did not seem like that,” O’Sullivan said. “It wasn’t aggressive and we didn’t pitch ahead in the count.”
Bradfield Jr. led off the top of the fourth with a base hit and stole his 32nd base this season — first in the nation — before the freshman phenom scored on Keegan’s RBI double.
Following a leadoff single in the fifth, right fielder Isaiah Thomas took Aleman yard and emphatically stomped on home plate to extend the lead to 9-1. Sophomore right-hander Ben Specht relieved Aleman to start the sixth inning and gave up a leadoff triple.
Specht allowed Vanderbilt’s 10th run before he turned the ball over to left-hander Ryan Cabarcas with two runners on and no outs in the top of the seventh. The freshman struck out the first batter, but an RBI groundout drove in Vanderbilt’s final run of the night.
Vanderbilt right-hander Kumar Rocker started on the bump and threw five solid innings en route to picking up his 10th win this season. The 6-foot-5-inch junior yielded only one hit through the first three frames until the Gators managed a pair of runs in the fourth and fifth innings.
“I credit our offense for being down six runs to Rocker. I thought we had some really good at-bats tonight,” O’Sullivan said.
In the bottom of the fourth, first baseman Kris Armstrong launched a leadoff solo shot into the right-field sky before left fielder Jacob Young scored on catcher Nathan Hickey’s RBI groundout the next inning.
In the bottom of the sixth, senior Kirby McMullen pinch hit for shortstop Jordan Carrion and drove a two-run double into the right-center gap to cut the deficit to 10-4. With two outs, Vandy right-hander Luke Murphy entered the game and struck out Armstrong to escape a bases-loaded jam.
After the Commodores made their third pitching change, Young tattooed a leadoff solo shot over the left-center-field wall in the bottom of the eighth. With two runners aboard, Armstrong doubled into the left-center gap before third baseman Colby Halter’s RBI single off Maldonado made it 11-7.
“Our offense did what they needed to do, but we’ve just got to be sharper on the mound. It’s just really that simple,” O’Sullivan said.
The Gators stranded one baserunner in the ninth — one of 14 runners Florida left on base — as Maldonado struck out center fielder Jud Fabian to close out a near four hour game.
The teams return to Florida Ballpark for game two Saturday at 6:30 p.m. The contest will air on SEC Network+.
Contact Griffin Foll at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @GriffinFoll
*Correction: The subheading initially stated the final score as 11-5, the correct final score was 11-7
Griffin Foll is a sophomore at UF studying journalism sports and media. He is one of The Alligator's women’s basketball beat writers. Griffin is also a UF softball beat reporter for ChompTalk.com and contributes weekly articles for ESPN Gainesville.