Lauren Lettelier, ESPN Radio
On a grungy, rainy night at McKethan Stadium, Florida sophomore Jonathon Crawford took the mound in his first collegiate career start. After only pitching 3 2/3 innings in 2011, he pitched five innings Wednesday night, allowing just two hits and setting the tempo for an 8-0 shutout of UCF, the first against the Knights since April 12, 1977.
After having a quick fifth-inning appearance last Sunday, where he was overwhelmed by blitzkrieg hitting from Cal-State Fullerton, it was important for Crawford to make a valiant effort to regain his confidence.
He did that and so much more.
“I think it all started with Crawford,” said Coach Kevin O’Sullivan. “It was his first career start and it was against a Top 20 team. The people in our locker room know the jumps that he’s made and he’s earned this start. I’m really pleased for him.”
Florida centerfielder/first baseman Preston Tucker, who tied the school’s RBI record set by Brad Wilkerson of 214 with a home run in the fifth inning of the game, said expectations for Crawford to come out and perform Wednesday were high.
“We expect big things out of him,” said Tucker. “He’s got some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen, so we didn’t expect anything less than that tonight. He did a great job of getting ahead of hitters and getting outs when he needed to and double plays when he needed to.”
Crawford started off the game in the first inning with a bang when he struck out UCF’s Darnell Sweeney with ease. He ended up having a strike out every inning with the exclusion of the fourth. In the first and second innings, Crawford pitched with commanding energy by throwing first pitches for strikes consistently. In the third, however, he walked two, but after a meeting with Coach O’Sullivan at the mound, he regained his footing and got out of the inning in the next at bat. He ended the game with three walks in all and recovered from his third inning stumbles.
The bullpen behind Crawford continued his dominance against UCF hitters. Southpaw Daniel Gibson pitched two innings with only one hit in 28 pitches. He gave the Gators a 1-2-3 sixth inning and did not give out a walk on the night. Lefty Bobby Poyner and right-hander Ryan Harris would follow and pitch an inning each, closing the game for the Gators and preventing any Knights to cross home plate.
Florida’s hitters saw the ball well Wednesday and produced some runs, but they left more players stranded on the bases than they brought across. They stranded 13 men on the bags, which was the major downfall of the night. Most of the time, the Gators would hit the ball well, but not enough for it to get away from UCF defenders. However, Florida found holes in the field at certain points during the game to allow them to put points on the board. Daniel Pigott (2-for-3, 2 RBI) started the hitting campaign in the first inning with a solo home run deep into the left field bleachers.
In the second, Taylor Gushue scored on Cody Dent’s first RBI of the season by reaching home on a 4-3 play at first. The Gators scored three in the third inning off of UCF’s left-hander Eric Skoglund. Preston Tucker (2-for-4, one RBI) hit his second double of the season, pushing Pigott to third. Mike Zunino (2-for-4, one RBI) made it to first on a UCF shortstop Darnell Sweeney error, bringing Pigott across home plate and moving Tucker into scoring position. A wild pitch let Tucker score and Casey Turgeon (2-for-4, one RBI) had his second base hit of the night to bring in Zunino.
Tucker homered to right field on the first pitch of the fifth, tying Brad Wilkerson’s school record for RBI with 214. Coach O’Sullivan said Tucker is a good hitter because he knows he can hit.
“I think he’s got presence,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s got a belief that it can happen. That’s half the battle in this game. That’s what makes really good hitters great hitters and he’s one of those guys.”
Zunino would immediately follow him with a double and be scored later by a Brian Johnson single. Freshman Josh Tobias then came in for Cody Dent at third base in the sixth inning and scored on Pigott’s double in the seventh.
UCF’s offense stranded 11 runners on the evening and went through five pitching changes in the loss. Right-hander and starting pitcher Matt Collins collected the loss for the Knights and their overall record is now 3-1.
Florida (4-1) will face William & Mary (2-2), a team they have not played since 1966, for a weekend series beginning on Friday at 7 p.m. The Gators swept the two games they played against William & Mary 46-years ago.
Lauren Lettelier is a junior telecommunications/news broadcasting major at the University of Florida. She covers Santa Fe and Gators baseball for ESPN Radio (Gainesville/Ocala). You can follow her on Twitter @laurenlettelier.