For the first time since 2013, the Florida Gators arrived at their ballpark after being swept at home the previous weekend.
Still reeling from an embarrassing weekend at the hands of the No. 1 Tennessee Volunteers, UF head coach Kevin O’Sullivan made a few changes to the lineup and pitching rotation to try and spark the team.
Sophomore starting pitcher Brandon Sproat started in the series-opening game for the first time this year; the move comes after sophomore ace Hunter Barco was shut down indefinitely with elbow discomfort after a brief two-inning outing against Vanderbilt.
Sproat did his part, delivering a scoreless outing, and the offense eventually woke up to handle its business as the Gators (24-17, 7-12 SEC) topped the Kentucky Wildcats (23-19, 6-13 SEC) 9-2 in the series opener.
After leading off every game he’s played this season, sophomore second baseman Colby Halter was moved down in the lineup by O’Sullivan, batting sixth. Replacing him was sophomore left fielder Wyatt Langford, and the new leadoff man proved his coach right his first time out.
On the sixth pitch of his first at-bat, Langford gifted the fans in Dizney Grove with his 14th home run ball of the season to put the Gators up 1-0 in the first.
That was Florida’s lone score, and hit, for the first four innings. Three batters would advance on walks or hit-by-pitches, but none would do any damage for the home side.
Nevertheless, Sproat was there to bail out the stagnant bats. The Pace, Florida, native delivered 5.1 scoreless innings. Like many of his outings, he did allow a handful of hits and encountered jams, but Sproat worked his way out of each one.
“I’m not sure early in the year that he would have gotten through that,” O’Sullivan said. “I think you’ve seen a lot of progress with him from the mental side and I thought he was really good tonight.”
Sproat recorded five strikeouts, bringing his season total to 54, on 103 pitches. He allowed five hits and three walks, but zero runs was the stat that mattered most.
Finally, in the fifth inning, sophomore shortstop Josh Rivera earned the Gators first hit since the homer, a double into deep left field. Freshman designated hitter Jac Caglianone, in his third career start, singled to put the second runner on base.
Freshman Deric Fabian laid down a bunt, beating out the throw to first to load the bases. With that play, the crowd at Condron Ballpark awakened.
Langford returned to the plate with the bases juiced, lining a single through the infield to bring Rivera home. Next up was sophomore right fielder Sterlin Thompson, who was hit by a pitch to bring Caglianone home.
Kentucky opted to make a pitching change with the bases still loaded zero outs still on the board. With junior center fielder Jud Fabian looming on deck, who led Florida with 16 homers entering the game, the move seemed necessary.
Jud delivered a sacrifice fly to plate his brother, Deric, and junior first baseman Kendrick Calilao did the same to bring Langford home. A groundout from Halter closed the four-run inning, as Florida now led 5-0.
After one out in the top of the fifth, Sproat was replaced with redshirt freshman Blake Purnell, earning a standing ovation from the crowd on his way to the dugout. Purnell worked a double-play ball to end the sixth.
Rivera crossed the plate once again in the sixth, this time off of a groundout from Deric. Caglianone was also on base and would reach home himself when Thompson blasted a no-doubt homer into deep right. With an exit velocity of 111 mph, the bomb secured an 8-0 lead and effectively ended the game.
In the eighth, Purnell allowed a solo shot from Wildcats senior first baseman Jacob Plastiak. Although the solo shot did little for the end result of the game, it was enough for O’Sullivan to replace Purnell with freshman righty Anthony Ursitti.
Thompson brought Caglianone home once again, this time on an RBI single, in the eighth. That play brought the score to 9-1, but it wasn’t the last of the action.
In the top of the ninth, with two outs remaining in the game, freshman Devin Burkes rocketed a home run off Ursitti. The bat flip after the swing prompted a fiery reaction from junior catcher BT Riopelle, as well as Ursitti.
Both dugouts poured onto the field, but no ejections came from it. Ursitti closed the game, reserving any potential retaliation for tomorrow’s affair.
“That’s just baseball,” Thompson said. “There can be a lot of tension in the games, and I feel like everything was handled well.”
After an utter collapse last weekend, Florida returned to the win column against a struggling Kentucky team. As postseason play draws ever closer, the Gators need every win they can get— this weekend is a prime opportunity to earn a few.
“We really can’t afford to look towards Sunday or next week,” O’Sullivan said. “We honestly have to take care of one inning at a time, one game at a time.”
Florida looks to secure a series victory tomorrow night at Condron Ballpark against the Wildcats. First pitch is slated for 6 p.m.
Carson Cashion is a third-year sports journalism major at UF, and the sports editor at The Alligator for the 2022 summer semester. A native of Altamonte Springs, Carson spends his free time walking his dog, Baxter, and listening to good music. He is an avid Tennessee sports fan, and eagerly awaits watching one of his teams win a championship for the first time.