Free baseball was on display for the first time ever at Florida Ballpark on Saturday afternoon. Top-ranked Florida could not hold on against number 21 Miami, despite an early lead. The series between the two Florida foes is now tied at 1-1 going into Sunday’s tiebreaker.
Early on, it was a good day for the Gators, especially those starting with the letter J. Jack Leftwich from the mound, Jud Fabian and Jacob Young in the field and on the base path and Josh Rivera at the plate.
Jack Leftwich recorded only two outs but kept the Gators on top in his first outing of the season. Jud Fabian laid it all out there on a SportsCenter Top 10 worthy catch in centerfield to rob Miami’s Christian Del Castillo of a hit in the top of the fourth while Jacob Young had an excellent day in left field, on the base path and managed to extend his hitting streak to 20 games. Young’s hitting streak spans 631 days and dates back to the 2019 post-season. Finally, Josh Rivera was a force at the plate as well with three hits, two RBI’s and one run.
Though his name does not start with a J, catcher Nathan Hickey’s performance at and behind the plate deserves recognition as well. Hickey launched a home-run in the bottom of the sixth and had two RBI’s, one being the first run of the game.
Five Run First
Florida came out hot and fast at the plate. Left-fielder Jacob Young led off for the Gators and reached on a fielding error by first baseman Alex Toral. Three-hole hitter and catcher Nathan Hickey took the ball the other way for a hit to score the first run of the day for the second day in a row.
Third-baseman Kirby McMullen followed suit with a stand up double to advance Hickey into scoring position. Designated hitter and possibly the Gator’s hottest hitter, Jordan Butler, launched a blooper to centerfield to send Hickey and McMullen home on a misplayed ball by the Hurricane’s centerfielder to open it up 3-0.
A ground out from first-baseman Kris Armstrong sent Butler to third with two outs. Up next, short-stop Josh Rivera hit a line drive down the third-base line to score Butler and tack on another run to the lead. The final run of the inning would come from freshman Sterlin Thomson in his first collegiate at-bat with an RBI single, scoring Rivera giving them the early 5-0 lead. The Gators would not score another run until the bottom of the fifth inning.
Uncharacteristic Mistakes from the Gators
A combined 11 walks came from the Florida pitching staff, and two batters were also hit. In addition to the walks, an array of errors came in the field with three errors spanning from short, first and second base. The most deadly walks came in the top of the ninth inning from right-handed closer Franco Aleman. Aleman allowed five walks and hit one batter in his appearance. In the top of the ninth, Florida carried a somewhat comfortable three-run lead of 8-5; Aleman was set to close, embracing his role early on in this season.
Gator coach Kevin O’Sullivan stayed true to his closer, not opting to pull the righty until the tying run crossed the plate.
“ He has been throwing great up until this point, I’ve never seen him do that,” O’Sullivan said. “He is our guy, he’s the guy at the end. I trust him. If that is going to be his role, we need to trust him. If you are making adjustments this early on in the season, it doesn’t send that message to him. It just wasn’t his night.”
However, O’Sullivan believes this loss does not fall on starter Jack Leftwich nor Aleman.
” The game didn’t come down to Franco at the end,” he said. “We would most times think that we would win the game with a three run lead but there is a lot of things that factor into today’s loss.”
On the Mound
The Gators and Hurricanes rolled through their bullpens, each featuring six different arms. Hurricane righty Ben Wanger picked up the win after pitching two innings in relief. O’Sullivan praised Hurricane starter, Alejandro Rosario, in his first collegiate appearance.
” Give credit their bull-pen and their starting guy, he re-grouped and settled in and kept it intact and gave his team a chance to win,” he said.
Both Florida’s and Miami’s bullpens will be light for Sunday’s competition. Florida will put freshman lefty Hunter Barco on the mound as they look to clinch the series. Barco, a season ago, was a quick study and landed the Sunday starter position during the brief 2020 season.
Hurricanes Threatening Late
Just like a day ago, the Hurricanes did not go down without a fight. It was a slow, but steady ascend on the scoreboard. Miami added runs in the fifth, seventh and eighth innings before scoring three more in the ninth to tie the game. The game-clinching runs for the Hurricanes came in the top of the frame in the 13th, A walk to right fielder Christian Del Castillo and a hit-by-pitch to Ben Wanger set up third baseman Raymond Gil’s single to give Miami their first lead of the game and of the series. Left fielder Jordan Lala reached base on a fielder’s choice and an error which added on an additional run to boost their lead to two.
Florida could not answer both runs in the bottom of the 13th, despite having runners on base. A single from McMullen scored Hickey to bring the Gators within one, but ultimately the Gators couldn’t get it done.
The Gators will get another shot at the Hurricanes, and the goal is still attainable. To win the series.
“We need to turn back around and get ready to play tomorrow,” O’Sullivan said. “There is a lot to pull from this game as a learning experience.”
First pitch is set for Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. at Florida Ballpark.