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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Gators host Tigers for a top-25 conference showdown

The LSU Tigers visit Florida for the first home conference series of the season

<p>The Florida baseball team stands in the dugout during a game against Jacksonville on March 14, 2021. The Gators host the LSU Tigers for a three-game slate</p>

The Florida baseball team stands in the dugout during a game against Jacksonville on March 14, 2021. The Gators host the LSU Tigers for a three-game slate

Florida baseball’s schedule continues to heat up as the Louisiana State Tigers come to town for a weekend series.

The No. 21 Tigers enter the series at 16-5. LSU is fresh off a series loss to Texas A&M this past weekend, dropping two of three to the Aggies.

Florida, on the other hand, took two of three in its opening series of SEC play on the road against the Alabama Crimson Tide. The No. 8 Gators bring a 15-5 record into the weekend. 

The two teams have not met since 2019, when LSU took two of three games from the Gators in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Of course, these teams famously met in the 2017 College World Series, with the Gators sweeping the Tigers to win the program’s first national championship.

Florida enters riding high, and star center fielder Jud Fabian spoke to that this week.

“We’re expecting to win,” Fabian said. “This is a confident group.”

It is hard to know what to expect in this series because LSU is not showing its cards. Tigers head coach Jay Johnson refused to name any starters for this weekend when asked about it following the series loss to Texas A&M.

Clearly, Johnson is unhappy with his pitching staff’s performance so far this year. He sounded extremely fed up following the series, saying LSU needed to “go back to the drawing board” when it comes to the rotation.

“It’s not gonna be a conventional way of doing things,” Johnson said. “It can’t be, we’re just not set up right now.” 

Johnson said he trusts his team, but they are not in a spot to rely on their starting pitching at the moment.

“I have confidence in the guys to do the job that we’re presenting them to do,” Johnson said. “I think it’s completely unfair to ask many of them to go seven innings, it’s not gonna happen.”

The Tigers did name one starter for this weekend though, as Blake Money will get the ball Friday night. Money took part in the 2013 Little League World Series where his younger brother, whose name is actually Cash, became a viral sensation.

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Blake has enjoyed great success so far this season, pitching to a 2.86 ERA in five starts with 33 strikeouts in 28.1 innings. 

While LSU’s pitching has struggled, the offense has set the world on fire. 

The Tigers have three guys with an OPS over 1.000 and two more over .900, four of which have 20 or more starts. They have three more guys with 17 plus starts and an OPS over .800.

To compare, Florida also has three regulars with an OPS over 1.000 and two more over .900, but only one more starter is into the .800s. The UF bats are nothing short of tremendous, but LSU’s brings a different type of firepower. 

Two guys to keep an eye on from the Tigers are third baseman Jacob Berry and catcher Cade Doughty. Berry is rated as the No. 4 overall prospect in this year’s MLB Draft by MLB Pipeline, while Doughty comes in at No. 34. 

Doughty leads the team in OPS at 1.212 and is second on the team in home runs with six. He is second only to Berry, who has eight homers and is third in OPS at 1.110. Berry is ranked as the best college player in the Draft with a 60-hit grade and 65-power grade. 

LSU’s sluggers will be a huge challenge for a Gator rotation that has hit a rough patch. The Gators are still searching for a third starter after Timmy Manning’s struggles have forced open the Sunday spot. 

The Gators have announced their rotation and it includes the dreaded TBA on Sunday. However, head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said Tuesday that redshirt freshman Ryan Slater will likely get an opportunity to start this weekend.

Slater has been coming out of the bullpen to begin the year and has been quite fantastic, allowing just three runs in 18 innings of work. He has 19 strikeouts, but has struggled with command a bit and allowed seven walks. 

The Palm Harbor, Florida, native has a major opportunity to earn himself a weekend spot and announce himself as a major part of this team. The Gators desperately need a Sunday starter they can rely on and Slater stepping up would be a huge boost. 

Luckily, Florida has Friday and Saturday locked down. 

Sophomores Hunter Barco and Brandon Sproat will get the ball Friday and Saturday once again with the latter in search of a bounce-back performance. Sproat allowed four runs on five hits and three walks in three innings Saturday against Alabama. His offense bailed him out and picked up the victory, but the performance was still concerning. 

Despite the rough go, Sproat has still been really good this year. The right-hander boasts a 3.33 ERA and has 28 strikeouts in 24.1 innings. He will need to get back to being sharp Saturday against the high-powered LSU offense. 

Meanwhile, Barco has been nothing short of tremendous.

The southpaw is likely pitching himself into the first round of the Draft with a 1.72 ERA and 44 strikeouts to just two walks in 31.1 innings. Florida always knows what it is getting with Barco, giving the team a chance to win every time he takes the mound.

This is a matchup of two tremendous offenses, and it is likely both will get its fair share this weekend. The series will come down to which team can limit the opposing offense the most in order to escape victorious. 

Based on that, the advantage favors Florida heading into the weekend. 

However, the Gators’ bullpen struggled mightily against Alabama and will need to recover quickly. Leads can disappear in an instant against an offense like LSU’s, so Florida will need the guys at the back of the pen to step up. The action from Florida Ballpark starts Friday at 7 p.m and will broadcast on SEC Network. Play continues Saturday at 6:30 p.m and wraps up Sunday at noon. The final two contests can be streamed on SEC Network +. 

Contact Ethan Budowsky at Follow him on Twitter @ethanbudowsky.

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