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Tuesday, March 05, 2024

Gators burned by Flames: Drop second-straight season opening series

The Gators suffered another massive disappointment as they dropped two of three against the Liberty Flames to open the season

<p>Florida&#x27;s Sterlin Thompson eyes a hit and runs down the first base line against Jacksonville on March 14, 2021.</p>

Florida's Sterlin Thompson eyes a hit and runs down the first base line against Jacksonville on March 14, 2021.

Florida Ballpark sat silent for most of Sunday, the only audible sounds were loud cheers from the Liberty dugout. The Flames knew they were in position to take two of three games and upset the Gators.

It was an eerie scene as Florida dropped its second-straight opening series, this time to the unranked Liberty Flames. The Flames did not lay down to No. 9 UF  and proved to be an extremely stiff challenge. 

As the final out was recorded, the Flames dugout erupted, leaving stunned silence everywhere else.

The series loss represents a major setback for a team that had large aspirations coming into 2022. If the end to 2021 left a sour taste in the Gators’ mouths, the start to this season will have them wanting to throw up all over themselves.

Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan spoke very highly of Liberty all weekend and continued to do so following the series loss. He said he warned everybody that they were a quality opponent and was not surprised they came to play.

“They attacked the entire weekend on the mound,” O’Sullivan said. “They didn’t give us anything.”

The Gators took game one of the series in dominant fashion behind a tremendous start from left-handed pitcher Hunter Barco.  

The junior southpaw set a career-high with 11 strikeouts and had a perfect game rolling into the fifth inning. 

Barco had all four of his pitches working, including his newly developed changeup. The offspeed pitch adds to the already lethal fastball, slider, splitter arsenal he brings to the hill. His ability to mix his pitches and rack up strikeouts is one of the main reasons he is ranked as the No. 53 overall MLB Draft prospect according to MLB Pipeline.

Another Gator on Pipeline’s Top-100 Draft prospect list is right fielder Sterlin Thompson.  He was the other star on Friday, launching two home runs to straightaway center, including a grand slam in the seventh inning that blew the game wide open.

Thompson drove in five of Florida’s seven runs opening night, providing the spark the offense needed to cruise to a 7-2 victory.

The bullpen struggled a bit as freshmen Nick Ficarrotta and Philip Abner had to be removed with runners on base. With such a young roster, especially in the arms department, O’Sullivan sees it all as just part of the process.

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“The pitching is gonna be up and down at the beginning of the season because of the youth,” O’Sullivan said. “The offense has to take some of the pressure off of the young arms.” 

Game two against Liberty Saturday did not go according to plan as starting pitcher Timmy Manning struggled, allowing four runs on five hits and two walks in three innings on the mound.

The Gators would claw back to tie the game at four in the fourth inning, but the Flames would add on in the fifth and eighth to take a 6-4 victory. 

Saturday also saw the first appearance of right-hander Brandon Sproat, who was penciled in to be the Saturday night starter before the season. He struggled to find the strike zone in two innings of work, allowing a run on a hit and two walks. The Pace, Florida, native did add three strikeouts, showing the potential that makes him another one of Pipeline’s Top-100 Draft prospects.

O’Sullivan said all decisions related to the rotation were based on performance and not matchups. He added that the rotation is set for now, but can change. It will be something to keep an eye on after both Manning and Sproat struggled in their initial action of the season.

The rubber match had a very similar start to both Friday and Saturday’s games as freshman left-hander Pierce Coppola racked up three strikeouts. Each Gator starter in the series tallied three Ks in the opening frame, an extremely impressive feat.

Coppola kept it rolling and picked up two more in the second, striking out five of the first six just like Barco did Friday.

It was the fastball that did the trick for the 6-foot 8-inch southpaw as he ran it up to a blistering 95 miles per hour. His big, lanky build creates a very different look than hitters are accustomed to and makes it extremely difficult to hit. Coppola’s fastball was most effective up in the zone and generated plenty of swings and misses. 

O’Sullivan said the game plan was to help Coppola settle in by using his fastball early and often.

“The pitch call today was trying to make it as simplistic as possible,” O’Sullivan said. “I went into it with the mindset that I’m not gonna make this kid overthink.”

Coppola picked up seven strikeouts over 4 1/3 innings but was chased in the fifth after allowing a double and a homer. Philip Abner would enter and immediately falter. The left-hander allowed a single and a double as Liberty drew even with Florida at three. 

The Gators took over in the previous half inning as Josh Rivera doubled in Wyatt Langford who got hit by a pitch. Then junior BT Riopelle unloaded on a ball to right field for a stroll around the bases. However, that would be the last time UF scored.

The Flames took the lead in their half of the sixth after Abner walked two and catcher Gray Betts hit a sacrifice fly to right, scoring center fielder Derek Orndorff. 

The turn of events followed a series of events that became all too familiar for Florida last year: score runs in bunches, walk a bunch of hitters and place an unfair burden on the bullpen.

“If we do what we're supposed to do offensively and build off the lead, then we don’t have freshman pitching in pressure situations,” O’Sullivan said. 

The Gators have huge long-term potential but are flawed in the short term. 

They are going to be forced to use a ton of young players in big spots and while it can save them at times, it also may cost them a lot of games early. 

O’Sullivan knows it is not sustainable to put the weight of the world on the young Gators’ shoulders. Relieving the stress will be a pivotal step to overcome this poor start. 

“These have been high-pressure situations right from the beginning,” O’Sullivan said. “That’s where you’re seeing deep counts and maybe not being able to control their emotions as much as they’ll be able to going forward.”

Florida will look to bounce back with midweek games against Stetson (1-1) Tuesday and North Florida (1-2) Wednesday. Attention then turns to a three-game slate with the Georgia State Panthers next weekend.

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