Lauren Lettelier, ESPN Radio
Good, but not great. Average, but not spectacular. These are the words flowing through Coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s mind when he thinks about how his No.1 nationally ranked Gators have performed so far.They played well-enough to defeat Bethune-Cookman 8-6 on Tuesday night at McKethan Stadium.
Following Tuesday night’s game against Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference member Bethune-Cookman, Coach O’Sullivan said he was pleased with how his team is performing at some levels, but not all.
“We still haven’t clicked yet,” said Coach O’Sullivan. “We‘re still knocking some rust off, so to speak. I don’t think we’re quite sharp yet but we’ll get there.
Even though Coach O’Sullivan thinks his team is still rusty, especially at the mound and the bullpen, the Florida Gators (3-1) are still ranked No.1 in all four of the major colligate baseball polls.
With this in mind, Bethune-Cookman(2-2) came into McKethan Stadium Tuesday night itching to give the top ranked team in the country a run for their money. And, for a while, they did. The Wildcats came out of the dugout wanting to get their paws on the ball and scored on a RBI triple in the first inning. Mike Zunino (2-for-3, 2 RBI) then responded to the Wildcats’ scoreboard press with a solo homerun to left field in the second.
From there, the Gators used a combination of Zunino, Cody Dent (3-for-3, one run), Nolan Fontana (0-for-2, one run), Daniel Pigott (2-for-4, one RBI), Preston Tucker (1-for-5, one RBI), Brian Johnson (1-for-4, 2 RBI) and Taylor Gushue (2-for-5, one RBI) to strategically travel around the bases in the third inning to score three. But, the glory was short-lived due to a Wildcat come back by scoring two in the fourth.
The Gators responded with one more in the same inning with Tyler Thompson (1-for-4, with one run) scoring on a wild pitch but Bethune-Cookman matched Florida again and increased the tally on the scoreboard one more in the fifth.
The sixth inning remained a scoreless one due to tough pitching by both UF’s right-hander Justin Shafer and Bethune-Cookman’s Bryan Rivera. Shafer pitched 1.2 innings with two runs scored on him in the seventh, and Rivera pitched four innings, allowing only one run to cross home plate.
Those two runs Shafer allowed in the seventh worried those watching that the Gators might not win for the first time ever against Bethune-Cookman. As the doubts started to air, Zunino homered again, but to right field this time, tying the game at 6-6 in the bottom of the seventh. Continuing his hitting streak to eight games and enhancing his homerun parade on the Wildcats, Zunino has homered four times in the last two meetings with Bethune-Cookman.
Florida loaded the bases in the eighth with All-American slugger Preston Tucker on his way to the plate. Tucker singled in Dent and advanced Pigott so Johnson’s sacrifice fly could score him. This RBI brought Tucker one away from breaking Brad Wilkerson’s 214 RBI school record.
In the end, the Gators outlasted the Wildcats with their ability to bring players around the diamond and score them when needed. The one thing that Florida needs to emphasize on is the younger pitchers in the lineup, and this game was one of the ways Coach O’Sullivan has to prepare them for the highest level of competition.
“There are some things pitching wise we’ve got to get a little bit better at,” said Coach O’Sullivan. “We need to pitch ahead a little bit and put zeros on the board the following inning when we score. But, [the pitchers] are close. [The mistakes] are young mistakes and they will get better as we go along.”
Freshman Johnny Magliozzi made his debut on the mound as a Gator Tuesday night and pitched 3.2 innings. During 65 pitches, he allowed three runs, five hits and two walks. Tampa Bay Rays draft pick Bobby Poyner pitched 1.1 innings after Magliozzi, permitting one run on two hits through 19 pitches. Shafer followed in the sixth while veteran closer Greg Larson pitched .1 of an inning to hand it off to Austin Maddox, who closed the game and collected the win, allowing only two hits and no runs in 21 pitches.
Two non-starters got to start and play the entire game, something Coach O’Sullivan said he would be doing regularly. Cody Dent started at third, where he played solid defense and went 3-for-3 on the night. This outing marked a career high in hits in a single game for Dent, making it his fifth multiple-hit game as a Gator.
“[Cody] had a great night tonight,” said Coach O’Sullivan. “He had a great night defensively, as he always does. It’s good to see him back out there.”
Freshman Taylor Gushue was awarded the SEC Freshman of the Week honor for his performance during the opening series against California State Fullerton last weekend and Coach O’Sullivan tested his talents at catcher Tuesday night. Giving Zunino a rest from catching so that he can just focus on filling the DH role is something O’Sullivan wants to do, occasionally. Gushue showed O’Sullivan that he would be the reliever he needs for that job.
“I thought Taylor did a great job defensively,” O’Sullivan said. “He only had one drop on the night. He threw the ball really well between innings and had a great night behind the plate.”
O’Sullivan said coming into this game that he had a weird feeling. He said it was, “just one of those nights,” where every ball that was hit found a hole. But the Gators got the chance to play a few new faces, giving those players an opportunity to earn their fame as a part of the No. 1 team in the country.
Florida is now 26-0 all-time against Bethune-Cookman and 25-0 in Gainesville. The Gators will host the UCF Knights tomorrow night at McKethan Stadium and the game will air on Fox Sports Florida at 7 p.m.
Lauren Lettelier is a junior telecommunications/news broadcasting major at the University of Florida. She covers Santa Fe College and Gators baseball. for ESPN Radio (Gainesville/Ocala). You can follow her on Twitter @laurenlettelier.