The fifth-ranked Gator baseball team (38-14, 19-8 SEC) is set to host its biggest series of the season. Sixth-ranked Kentucky (37-16, 18-9 SEC) comes into Gainesville for an SEC showdown, with both teams having a chance to win both the SEC regular season title, and the SEC East divisional crown.
In 8 of last 9 years, #Gators have entered final weekend with a chance to win @SEC — and been in 1st FIVE times w/ 3 to go. pic.twitter.com/HuIY4MkxWf
— Gators Baseball (@GatorsBB) May 15, 2017
The Gators enter in pole position to take both the SEC East and the SEC overall title. Florida holds a one-game lead over both Kentucky and LSU, so a series win over the Wildcats would clinch both titles for the Kevin O’Sullivan’s team. O’Sullivan said the opportunity is a big one for Florida, saying “it’s important to a lot of people.”
His team is in this position because of it’s solid play down the stretch. The Gators have now won each of their past five SEC series, including sweeping each of the past three. Over its last 21 games overall, Florida is an impressive 18-3.
In that stretch, the Gator bats have been on fire, driving in an average of 6.95 runs per game. In the Alabama series that Florida is coming off of sweeping, Nelson Maldonado, Ryan Larson, and J.J. Schwarz each had big weekends. They combined for 15 RBIs, with Schwarz blasting two home runs over the series and Maldonado scoring four runs.
Pitching wise, Florida’s rotation comes into the Kentucky showdown as the consistent strength of the team. Friday starter Alex Faedo allowed just one run over the weekend and leads the SEC in strikeouts, while Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar are a combined 15-3 as the Saturday and Sunday starters respectively.
Standing in the way though is a hot Kentucky team that hasn’t dropped a series to Florida since 2012.
The Wildcats come into Gainesville 13-4 over their past 17 games, including winning their past five games. That includes a sweep of a Tennessee team that took the series against Florida in Gainesville when they played at the beginning of April.
The Wildcats bring with them into town one of the most potent offenses in the country. Kentucky has five battters batting at least .336, with five of the top nine batters in the conference. They lead the SEC in team batting average with an impressive .320 average, and feature the reigning SEC player of the week in second baseman Riley Mahan. Mahan hit .667 over the weekend with three home runs and eight RBI, and he ranks first in the SEC in runs and total bases, and second in hits.
UK's batting avg. in SEC games is .320, which is 41 points higher than next best team (.279). Have nearly 100 more total bases. #WeAreUK pic.twitter.com/Wm7HUbLPdA
— Kentucky Baseball (@UKBaseball) May 15, 2017
One advantage this lineup can have over the Florida rotation is that they will feature seven lefties against Florida’s three right handed pitchers. This, combined with the consistency from their pitching rotation, has O’Sullivan knowing it will be a difficult series for Florida. That pitching staff is led Sean Hjelle as the opening-of-the-series starter, with Zach Logue and Justin Lewis as the other weekend starters, and Zack Thompson, who has 11 starts on the season. Hjelle is second in the conference with eight wins, while Thompson is in the top 15 for strikeouts with 77 on the season.
Thursday – 7 p.m.
Florida: RHP Alex Faedo (7-1, 2.35 ERA)
Kentucky: RHP Sean Hjelle (8-2, 3.28 ERA)
Friday – 7 p.m.
Florida: RHP Brady Singer (6-3, 2.58 ERA)
Kentucky: LHP Zach Logue (6-4, 4.50 ERA)
Saturday – 1 p.m.
Florida: RHP Jackson Kowar (9-0, 3.92 ERA)
Kentucky: RHP Justin Lewis (6-2, 3.23 ERA)
Now let’s say the Gators take 2 of 3 from UK and that LSU sweeps their conference opponent. Both UF and LSU would be tied for first overall in the SEC, but the Gators took 2 of 3 from the Tigers earlier that season, which means UF would be the #1 overall seed in the SEC tournament. Gators better at least sweep the Cats for the outright conference pennant!