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Saturday, September 24, 2022

Gators ninth inning meltdown takes away shine from big names

The stars of Florida baseball nearly delivered a sweep, but the bullpen had other plans

<p>Florida outfielder Jud Fabian and the Gators collapsed in the ninth inning Sunday afternoon, falling to the Alabama Crimson Tide, 8-7.</p>

Florida outfielder Jud Fabian and the Gators collapsed in the ninth inning Sunday afternoon, falling to the Alabama Crimson Tide, 8-7.

The big names nearly delivered a sweep for Florida baseball over Alabama Sunday to open up conference play with flying colors.

The biggest of them all, outfielder Jud Fabian, came through in a clutch moment and all but secured the sweep.

With his team trailing in the eighth inning, Fabian entered the batter’s box with a runner on and nobody out. He got a 2-0 fastball in on his hands and turned on it, sending it over the fence in left field to retake the lead for the Gators. 

It was an impressive piece of hitting as Fabian quickly brought his hands in to get the barrell to the ball. It was his eighth home run of the year, tied for the team lead.

However, pitching and defense came back to bite Florida all day and did so again in the ninth.

Freshman Blake Purnell entered looking to shut the door on his third straight day seeing action. He came into the day with a perfect ERA of 0.00.

It would not last.

Purnell put two on with one out in the ninth, and up stepped Alabama shortstop Jim Jarvis. He laid down a squeeze bunt with a runner on third and instead of letting the ball roll foul, Purnell picked up the ball despite the Gators having no play anywhere and the tying run scored.

After Deric Fabian mishandled a double play ball that would have sent the game to extras, the bases were loaded for the Tide. Zane Denton came through with a base knock to score the winning run and complete the comeback. 

While youth in the bullpen has paid off for Florida at times, it has been its achilles heel at others. Picking up the ball was a freshman mistake by Purnell and it cost UF mightily.

It was the second time in the series the Gators collapsed in the ninth, but they were able to survive Friday night. This time they were not as lucky, falling 8-7 to the tide in epic fashion.

Sophomore Wyatt Langford and junior Sterlin Thompson did the damage early for Florida Sunday. The pair started by trading doubles in the first inning to open the scoring. BT Riopelle would reach on an error to bring around Langford and make it 2-0 in the second.

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The Gators scored in the first inning in all three games this weekend, and are now 13-1 this season when they score first.

While the offense started hot, the pitching did not. 

Southpaw Timmy Manning got the start and struggled again, lasting just an inning and a third. The Pompano Beach, Florida native was yanked after loading the bases with one out in the second and two of those runners scored to tie the game. 

Manning’s ERA shot up to 5.52 on the year as he just cannot find consistency. Failing to get through two innings is a huge setback. Florida is still searching for the right answer with Sunday starter freshman Pierce Coppola sidelined due to a back injury. 

With Manning continuing to struggle, it may be time for head coach Kevin O’Sullivan to get creative with the third spot. Florida’s pitching staff is very young, but it is even more talented and there are plenty of arms waiting to pounce.

It will continue to be something to keep an eye on heading forward. 

The Gators need to find a consistent option as they head deeper into conference play. If they face the teeth of their SEC schedule without a reliable starter on Sundays, it will be a very difficult road through the conference.

Thompson and Langford continued rolling the Tide in the fourth, smacking back-to-back home runs to open up a 4-2 lead. Langford’s was exceptionally impressive, traveling over the towering scoreboard in left field and reaching the parking lot. The sophomore turned in another tremendous series, going 7-14 with three homers to raise his season total to eight. 

In the home half of the fourth, right fielder Tommy Seidl doubled before left fielder Owen Diodati unleashed a home run to tie the game.

Brandon Neely had entered for Florida and seemed to have settled things down, but made a couple mistakes to get Bama back in the game.

The Tide got a runner to second base in the fifth with two outs for junior Zane Denton. He grounded one up the middle to shortstop Josh Rivera, who made a great play to save the ball from going into center field. However, Rivera made a costly decision and threw the ball to a vacant first base, giving  Alabama a 5-4 advantage.

It was the second throwing error of the day for Rivera that allowed runs to score and the third error total for the Gators.

It was a struggle for UF’s pitching staff Saturday. They recorded just one strikeout all day when right-handed pitcher Garrett Milchin got Eric Foggo swinging in the sixth inning. Two different pitchers allowed home runs and they kept letting Bama back into the game.

Despite the collapse, the Gators still emerged with a series victory in their conference opener. They will no doubt have a sour taste in their mouths heading forward after this epic loss though. 

A massive positive to take from this series is the offense. The Gators scored 26 runs across three games and launched 10 home runs. They now have 41 home runs on the season, and just three players in their starting lineup Sunday are hitting below .300.

They have much to figure out on the mound, but their offensive firepower makes them a threat in every series they will play.

The season continues Wednesday, as Florida comes home to host Bethune-Cookman before a weekend showdown with the LSU Tigers.

Contact Ethan Budowsky at ebudowsky@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @ethanbudowsky.

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