Baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, is a game of numbers. Two numbers aptly describe the Gators’ Friday night matchup against South Carolina.
54. That’s how many days it has been since Florida held an above-.500 record in the Southeastern Conference.
10. That’s how many career-high strikeouts freshman pitcher Brandon Neely threw on the way to a seven-inning shutout against the Gamecocks, propelling UF to a 5-0 win, a series victory and an elusive positive conference record at 15-4.
Florida (35-19, 14-14) defeated South Carolina (26-27, 12-17) 8-0 on Friday, earning the series victory and an opportunity to sweep the Gamecocks on Saturday.
Neely had a solid start on the mound. The right-hander opened up the game with three scoreless innings and threw five strikeouts.
“I felt really good tonight,” Neely said. “Once you start to do good in this league, it starts to build up. When you get the idea of what it’s like to throw good, it begins to build.”
In the bottom of the third, the Gators began to take advantage of the Gamecocks’ sloppy play to give Neely a lead to defend. Sophomore left fielder Wyatt Langford reached second on a throwing error before advancing to third on a wild pitch. Sophomore infielder Sterlin Thompson brought Langford home on an RBI single.
Florida scored twice more thanks to another fielding error and a sacrifice groundout from sophomore infielder Josh Rivera, bringing the UF lead to 3-0 headed into the fourth.
Neely continued to deal, retiring the next six batters in order. South Carolina’s frustrations seemed to be on the rise in the bottom of the fifth as junior catcher BT Riopelle doubled to deep right-center field. Gamecocks head coach Mark Kingston emerged from the dugout to express his displeasure with the umpire and was subsequently ejected from the game.
Rivera immediately added to SC’s misfortune with a two-run shot over the left field wall.
Florida cruised to the finish line, tacking on three more runs, highlighted by a monstrous homer from junior center fielder Jud Fabian which was sent well out of the park. With the homer, Fabian became the second Gator with consecutive 20+ home run seasons.
After Langford’s 21st home run Thursday, the duo becomes the first in UF history to hit 20 homers each in one season.
Saturday, the orange and blue have a chance at sweeping their final regular season series. Closing out with four consecutive weekend series victories could go a long way for the Gators’ momentum ahead of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
“You always wanna get hot at the right time,” Fabian said. “Right now, we’re getting to a point where we’re really hot and we’re gonna try and keep that going throughout the postseason.”
Florida’s postseason campaign begins Tuesday in Hoover, Alabama.