With two outs and a runner on in the fifth inning, sophomore shortstop Josh Rivera stepped to the plate.
He got a pitch down the middle and did not miss it, nearly hitting the left-field scoreboard at 121 Financial Ballpark.
It was Rivera’s third homer of the season and could not have come at a more important time, extending Florida’s lead to three, 5-2.
The No. 14 Gators (18-7) opened their season series against the No. 5 Florida State Seminoles (16-8) with a much-needed 6-3 victory in Jacksonville, Florida, Tuesday night.
Following a weekend series loss to the No. 13 LSU Tigers, Florida needed a win in the worst way. The Gators especially needed a good performance from their pitching staff, and it delivered.
Sixth-year Garrett Milchin got the start for Florida and gave the team what it needed. He was only asked to go 2.1 innings, but limited damage despite allowing five hits. He held FSU to just one run and did not walk a batter.
Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said postgame he limited Milchin in hopes of him being available for this weekend’s series against Georgia. The Gators have a quick turnaround as the series with the No. 23 Bulldogs starts Thursday instead of the normal Friday.
After a rough weekend for the pitching staff, having a starter limit damage was key for the Gators to jump-start the offense.
That boost came in the form of Rivera. The Avon Park, Florida, native is not known for his prowess with the bat, but came through in a big way for the Gators in Jacksonville.
After Florida State took a 1-0 lead in the second inning, Rivera answered for the Florida offense with an RBI double down the line that scored freshman Deric Fabian and tied the game.
Things could have gotten bad for Florida in the third inning if it were not for the heroics of sophomore Wyatt Langford.
With two on and one out, Florida State slugger Logan Lacey crushed a shot to left field that was bound to be a home run, but Langford jumped and made a tremendous catch to bring the ball back and keep the game tied.
The Gators would use the momentum from that incredible play to take the lead in the third inning after junior Jud Fabian walked, sophomore Sterlin Thompson singled and Langford reached on a fielder's choice to score Jud.
However, Florida handed the tying run to its instate rival the very next inning. After a leadoff single by FSU designated hitter Brett Roberts, freshman reliever Nick Ficarrotta walked three of the next four batters he faced to bring in a run.
Luckily, it was Rivera and Langford who came through once again to deliver the lead in the fifth. Langford led off the inning with a triple, then scored on a groundout by junior BT Riopelle to retake Florida’s lead.
Then Rivera came through with the moment of the game.
From there, it was all up to the bullpen for Florida. The young arsenal of arms struggled mightily at times this year, but they shined Tuesday night. O’Sullivan turned to four different pitchers after Milchin was removed and they allowed just two runs in 6.2 innings of work.
Blake Purnell’s 2.2 innings pitched stood out above the rest. Entering in the seventh, trying to hang on to a lead with two on and one out, Purnell held the Seminoles in check with a crucial escape. He allowed a sac-fly that scored a run, but struck out FSU second baseman Jackson Greene to escape further damage.
Purnell then retired six of the final seven he would face in the eighth and ninth to secure the victory. O’Sullivan displayed huge trust in the freshman by giving him such a task, and the South Florida kid didn’t let him down.
With all the struggles the Gators have had with relievers this year, Purnell has been almost flawless. His ERA sits at an impressive 0.77 and he has become O’Sullivan’s go-to man late in games.
The win gives the Gators the upper hand in the season series with their in-state rival. The two will face off twice more this season. First in Tallahassee, Florida, April 12, then in Gainesville May 17. The UF home game is the makeup of a contest that was rained out two weeks ago.
Florida now zeroes in on another important conference matchup against the Georgia Bulldogs beginning Thursday at 8 p.m. The series opener will be broadcast on ESPN2. Friday’s matchup is at 6 p.m. and Saturday’s finale is scheduled for 2 p.m, Both of the final games will be streamed on SEC Network+.
Contact Ethan Budowsky at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ethanbudowsky