Junior Jud Fabian came back to Florida in the hopes of upping his draft stock and getting back into the first round.
It was moments like Thursday that cement his decision as the right one.
With his team locked in a duel with the rival Georgia Bulldogs, the star center fielder stepped to the plate knowing his team was in desperate need of a big hit. Florida’s ace, left-hander Hunter Barco, struggled on the night and left the Gators on the backfoot.
It would end with No. 14 Florida (18-8, 3-4) in a major hole, down a game in the series following a 7-6 loss to the rival No. 23 Bulldogs (20-6, 4-3) Thursday.
Knowing they needed a series win, they manifested a death wish, starting down a game with a ludicrous amount of existing pitching concerns.
Fabian was never going to let that happen. The Ocala, Florida, native got a first-pitch fastball right over the heart of the plate and exploded on it, sending it over the trees in left-center.
The second the ball touched the bat every single person in the park knew it was gone, and Fabian held onto his bat to watch it fly as he strolled to first base admiring his masterpiece.
As the ball continued to soar, the cheers from the Florida dugout got louder and louder. The blast gave the Gators a 6-4 lead and the collective sigh of relief could be heard all the way back to Gainesville.
And yet, it ended up not mattering.
Florida’s young bullpen has struggled all season long and its most epic disaster came Thursday. Even after Fabian came through with the heroics, the Bulldogs were not dead.
Right-hander Ryan Slater, who had been fantastic in relief, let two batters reach base but left them stranded after managing to get two outs. After the second hit of the inning, head coach Kevin O’Sullivan came out to get the ball and hand it over to freshman Blake Purnell.
Purnell has been O’Sullivan’s go-to-guy in the ninth, but entered in a really tough spot.
He threw two pitches. Georgia had two hits. They scored three runs.
Before Purnell could even get a taste of the game, the game was over. The Gators had blown another ninth-inning lead, and faced a dangerous scenario by losing the first game of the series.
Whenever Barco struggles this year it will immediately put Florida in a gargantuan hole in any series. Florida has not announced a starter for Friday, and will turn to sixth-year Garrett Milchin Saturday.
They have been unable to find somebody that can consistently pick up the slack if Barco fails to find his mojo. Now Florida is up against the wall, needing back-to-back wins over a stout Georgia team to avoid losing two of their first three conference series.
Barco’s struggles were evident from the get-go and Georgia jumped all over him. The southpaw threw a ton of fastballs in the first inning and the Bulldogs used an aggressive approach to score two runs.
It started on the second pitch of the game when UGA leadoff man Ben Anderson took Barco yard to get the party started. Then grad student Cole Tate tripled and scored on a ground ball that snuck past junior Kendrick Calilao at first base.
Barco let up hits to the first four batters he faced and threw more than 30 pitches in the first inning. It was the second straight night he did not have his best stuff but unlike LSU, Georgia made him pay early on.
The poor performance comes after D1 Baseball ranked Barco as the No.1 pitcher in the country Thursday.
The Gators answered in the third inning with some small ball.
After getting two runners on, Wyatt Langford stepped up facing a big shift from the Georgia infield towards the left side. Langford calmly ipped a single in between two defenders that snuck into the outfield to drive in the Gators’ first run.
Then junior BT Riopelle came to the plate with a big shift to the right side of the infield. The junior transfer placed the ball to the vacant left side of the infield, driving in a huge run to tie the game.
Barco seemed to settle in for a few innings thanks to the use of his slider. He made an adjustment by going away from the fastball that Georgia was all over and began fooling them with the breaking stuff.
However, he went back to the fastball in the fourth and paid for it. Sophomore Parks Harber crushed another baseball to give Georgia a 3-2 lead.
The Bulldogs would add on again with another home run in the sixth after Slater entered.
Florida set Fabian up to tie the game in the seventh, when designated hitter Mac Guscette went deep for the first home run of his career. At the time, it seemed like all the momentum had swung UF’s way. It was certainly not the last time momentum would swing in the game.
Lost in all the craziness was left fielder Wyatt Langford making another insane catch to take away a home run. You had to see it to believe it, this one even better than his robbery against Florida State Tuesday.
The Gators need to wipe this effort from their memory quickly and regroup before Friday’s game. The team has not announced who will be on the bump, while Georgia will send right-hander Jonathan Cannon to the hill. The action begins at 6 p.m. and can be streamed on SEC Network +.
Contact Ethan Budowsky at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ethanbudowsky.