The dual-threat of the Florida Gators has been on full display through the first two ballgames of this weekend’s series at Florida Ballpark against Georgia State University.
No. 15 Florida (5-2) followed up sophomore Hunter Barco’s career-high 12 strikeout performance Friday night with a 16-hit slaughter of the Panthers (4-3) Saturday night. The hitting barrage led to a 13-4 victory for the Gators.
Florida Ballpark was packed to the brim with a program-record crowd of 6,511.
After dropping its opening series last weekend to the Liberty Flames, the Gators have hopped on a four-game winning streak. Florida captured both midweek tilts against Stetson and North Florida and is now a game away from sweeping Georgia State out of Gainesville.
The Gators reaped the benefits of four combined home runs from sophomores Colby Halter and Wyatt Langford, junior Kris Armstrong, and freshman Rene Lastres.
Lastres took advantage of his first collegiate at-bat, launching a two-run shot to cap off an offense-heavy eighth inning. The top five spots in the Gators batting order combined for 11 hits and 11 RBIs.
“Tonight was obviously our best offensive night of the year,” head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “When you’re getting production at the top of the order like that, it will probably end up being a really productive offensive day.”
Freshman Philip Abner was given the starting call for the Gators after expected-starter Pierce Coppola was scratched with a back issue. Abner, who allowed two runs in 1.2 innings thrown, was roughed up over two frames of work.
The Charlotte, North Carolina, native only gave up one hit in the first inning, a two-out single to Georgia State sophomore Cameron Jones.
Jones eventually got caught stealing second by catcher BT Riopelle to end the frame.
Florida struck first in the bottom half of the first on a lead-off home run from Halter. The 3-1 fastball was delivered from Panthers hurler Ryan Watson and launched over the right-field wall into the Gators bullpen.
The second inning is where the trouble began for Abner. The freshman walked lead-off batter Griffin Cheney and tossed two wild pitches to allow the Georgia State base runner to advance to third. Panthers third baseman Will Mize drove in Cheney with a line-drive single to center field.
Georgia State’s Jojo Jackson reached on a fielder’s choice that eliminated Mize at second base and reached second on the third wild pitch of the inning from Abner. Following a walk to catcher Chase Wullenweber, Abner induced a groundout to second from Jesse Donohue to strand both runners.
After a clean frame from Watson in the bottom of the second, the Panthers put more pressure on Abner by getting the first two runners on base via a hit by a pitch from Josh Smith and a double down the left field line from Max Ryerson.
O’Sullivan dipped into his abundantly youthful bullpen for the first time, summoning redshirt freshman Blake Purnell. With two runners in scoring position, Jones promptly sent a groundball right back to Purnell, who opted to throw home but was not quick enough to get Smith, who slipped under the tag of Riopelle to put the Panthers up 2-1.
Ryerson would score on a base hit from Dalton Pearson to give Georgia Tech a two-run advantage. Both runs were charged to Abner.
The Gators retook the lead for good in the bottom of the third inning, which began with a single to left from freshman Deric Fabian. A walk from Halter and a rare sacrifice bunt from Jud Fabian set up sophomore Sterlin Thompson’s RBI sacrifice fly to left field.
Immediately after, left fielder Wyatt Langford smashed a two-run homer to dead center, his second of the series, to put Florida back in front 4-3. That was the end of the day for Watson, with head coach Brad Stromdahl swapping him out for sophomore Kyle Riesselmann, who got Riopelle to fly out to left.
Purnell mixed his pitches well in the fourth and fifth innings, stranding three Panther baserunners. The Boynton Beach, Florida, native his first winning decision of the season.
“It was great (to shut down the threat) because we had the momentum on our side to win this game,” Purnell said. “It’s great (to be a game away from a weekend sweep), but the job is not finished so we just have to keep going.”
The Gators tacked on two more in the sixth inning, with the first coming on a lead-off moonshot from Armstrong, whose big fly wrapped around the foul pole down the right-field line and ended up just fair.
The second run was set up by Halter, who stood on second base with Jud Fabian at first and Thompson at the dish. Halter used the pull-shift Georgia State’s infield had instituted for the left-handed hitter to his advantage after noticing the third baseman Mize was situated back on the edge of the outfield grass near shortstop.
Halter took off and stole third base uncontested since there were no fielders around to cover the bag. The Jacksonville, Florida, native’s high baseball IQ paid off a short time later when Thompson found a hole in the shift to drive him in.
“That was an instinctual play,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s something you can’t really call, but we have talked about it in practice. If you have an opportunity to beat the third baseman to the bag, it’s a fairly easy 90 feet.”
A very strange play occurred in the bottom half of the seventh. Home plate umpire Damien Beal had a pitch from Chad Treadway deflect off the catcher’s mitt and become trapped in between his right forearm and hip. Had the ball continued to the backstop, it was likely that Riopelle, the Florida runner on third base, would have scored.
Since Beal had accidentally “caught” the ball, he ruled that his umpire interference granted Riopelle, who was standing patiently on third, the right to walk across home plate.
The Gators sealed the deal with an explosive five-run eighth inning. Thompson drove in his third run of the game by lacing a double to right-field and Langford brought home two more with a base hit to center.
O’Sullivan then tabbed Lastres to pinch-hit for Riopelle. The young catcher made the best of his first trip to the plate as a Gator, destroying a 3-1 knee-high fastball from Georgia State’s David White for a home run onto the left-field berm to make it 13-3 Florida.
“Rene’s got tools, I have been saying that a lot,” O’Sullivan said. “The improvements he has made offensively since he’s been here have been great. He has really learned how to handle the outer half of the plate better.”
Graduate student Garrett Milchin along with freshman Brandon Neely and Anthony Ursitti handled the final four innings on the mound for Florida, only allowing one earned run, which came with two outs in the ninth. Ursitti allowed a home run to left-center field off the bat of Cheney before striking out Pearson to secure the Gators win.
Florida takes on Georgia State for the series finale Sunday afternoon at Florida Ballpark. Sophomore southpaw Timmy Manning is expected to toe the rubber for the Gators. He will be opposed by Panthers right-hander Dylan Matela. First pitch is set for 1 pm and will be broadcast to SEC Network Plus.
Contact Ethan Eibe at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EthanEibe.
Ethan Eibe is a second-year UF sports media major and covers Gators volleyball for The Alligator. Outside of his writing, Ethan is a play-by-play broadcaster for UF student radio and has spent two summers announcing professional baseball with the Alpine Cowboys. He is a long-suffering Miami Marlins fan.