Florida Gators baseball christened its 2023 campaign with an emphatic sweep of the Charleston Southern Buccaneers this past weekend, including a pair of mercy-rule victories.
UF’s starting rotation stifled a stagnant CSU offense, and the offense provided more than enough run support to wash away any first-series jitters.
Junior right-hander Brandon Sproat set the tone for opening night Friday. He recorded 5.2 innings of three-run ball and kept the Bucs out of the hit column in a 13-3 victory.
Southern Mississippi transfer Hurston Waldrep followed Sproat’s effort with a five-inning, two-run performance in a 16-2 slaughter Saturday.
Sunday’s 8-0 finale saw sophomore Jac Caglianone step up as pitcher for the first time in his Gator career. The hard-throwing left-hander lived up to the hype and mowed Charleston Southern down through 6.2 shutout innings.
Caglianone, a two-way player, spent his freshman year recovering from Tommy John surgery and was limited to a designated hitter role, where he slugged seven home runs.
Gators head coach Kevin O’Sullivan was more than pleased with his team’s starting rotation and all-around performance.
“We got three really good starts from our starters,” O’Sullivan said. “All phases, I thought, were pretty good.”
Sophomore right fielder Ty Evans and senior catcher BT Riopelle were the focal points of Florida’s offense. Evans finished the series with 10 runs batted in, including four on both Saturday and Sunday, thanks to key hits with runners in scoring position.
Riopelle smashed UF’s first home run of the season, a three-run bomb to right-center field in the first inning of Friday’s season opener.
Junior infielder Tyler Shelnut, who transferred in from Santa Fe College, was another bright spot. The Lake City, Florida, native hit his first Gators home run Saturday — a long ball to left field.
“I think we're pretty happy with the way that we swung it,” Shelnut said. “Pretty much trying to attack balls up in the zone and be aggressive, and I think we did a good job of that.”
Florida’s defense shined throughout the series — not committing a single error — and was particularly noticeable in the finale. The program has made extensive strides to improve its glove work over the last few seasons, cutting its errors from 70 in 2021 to 45 last year.
UF benefitted from junior shortstop Josh Rivera’s range, junior third baseman Colby Halter’s athleticism and the strong arm of Riopelle behind the plate.
“In the infield you’ve got a lot of guys who can make plays that are needed, always make the routine plays and also making spectacular plays when needed,” Rivera said.
Rivera’s bat also came through, something the Gators will need to see consistently. He posted four RBIs on three hits and said he spent the weekend adjusting to the NCAA’s new pitch clock, which gives pitchers 20 seconds to deliver a pitch with a runner on base.
The most challenging thing as a hitter is slowing yourself down, he said.
“Since you’ve got to get back in the box in a hurry, you can fall into the trap of speeding yourself up,” Rivera said. “Once the game speeds up too fast, things start going wrong.”
The lopsided nature of the first two games led to the first usage of the NCAA’s new mercy rule, which stipulates a contest ends when the deficit is 10 runs after seven complete innings.
The rule is intended for SEC play but can be employed in non-conference action if the head coach of the non-conference team wishes. O’Sullivan is not a fan of the mercy rule, he said.
“For me, personally, baseball is a nine-inning game,” O’Sullivan said. “It takes away from opportunities to get other guys some at-bats.”
Despite playing four fewer innings of baseball throughout the weekend than expected, Florida used a variety of players off the bench to showcase its depth.
Freshmen left-hander Cade Fisher and righty Yoel Tejeda Jr. impressed in their bullpen outings Saturday.
UF started freshmen Luke Heyman at catcher Sunday and freshman Cade Kurland at second base for the latter two games. Both delivered in big moments, with Heyman knocking an RBI triple and Kurland driving in two on four hits.
Kurland is a name to keep an eye on, O’Sullivan said.
“Here's a guy that's supposed to be in high school right now,” O’Sullivan said. “He's got a great demeanor about him. He kind of just slows down the game. He's different.”
The Gators look to continue their hot start to the season in a pair of midweek tilts against the South Florida Bulls on the road Tuesday and at home Wednesday. Looking to the upcoming weekend, the Gators are scheduled to host the Cincinnati Bearcats Friday through Sunday.
Contact Ethan Eibe at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EthanEibe.
Ethan Eibe is a second-year UF sports media major and covers Gators baseball for The Alligator. Outside of his writing, Ethan is a play-by-play broadcaster for UF student radio and has spent two summers announcing professional baseball with the Alpine Cowboys. He is a long-suffering Miami Marlins fan.