A few thoughts to jump start your Thursday morning:
THE GATORS CAN’T PULL OFF THE IMPOSSIBLE … CAN THEY? After getting swept by Arkansas in Fayetteville last weekend, no one with a functioning brain would have been shocked if the Florida Gators were one-and-done in Hoover, Alabama. It’s the way the Gators lost three in a row to the Razorbacks that had everyone shaking their head, hoping for the best in Hoover, but expecting the worst. Those were three winnable games that the Gators blew, not exactly the way a team headed for bigger and better things is supposed to be playing at the end of the regular season.
Okay, so they beat Kentucky in that first round game, not exactly a monumental achievement but considering the way UF played in Fayetteville and how well they played against Kentucky, it was enough to raise a few eyebrows. After that 4-1 win that was highlighted by exceptionally good pitching, just enough hitting to put the game out of UK’s reach, and defense that for once didn’t do something stupid like commit a stupid error to open the floodgates for a bad inning, folks who do the baseball bracketology were saying the Gators had cemented hosting an NCAA regional.
That was about as good as it is supposed to get for the Gators, but a funny thing happened on the way to a second round loss to a Mississippi State team that has spent the majority of the season ranked among the top five teams in the country and a team that has a shot at the NCAA record for most strikeouts per nine innings by a pitching staff. The Gators (a) didn’t lose, (b) struck out only three times, (c) ripped and shredded five MSU pitchers for 18 hits, and (d) run-ruled the Bulldogs. The Gators (37-19) led 13-1 after seven innings so by SEC Tournament rules, mercy was declared and there were the Gators, looking in Hoover like they were supposed to look back in Gainesville when the season began back in February when everyone with a vote and opinion had UF ranked No. 1 in the nation.
And now, instead of a tail-dragger of a loss to Mississippi State (40-14) that puts UF in the elimination bracket, the Gators find themselves on day three with a date to play Alabama (31-22) of all people. Alabama wasn’t supposed to survive day one much less knock off 4th-ranked and 2nd-seeded Tennessee 3-2 in 11 innings on day two. Instead of an early morning elimination game, the Gators and Alabama will play at 5 p.m.
In beating Mississippi State, Florida got the best pitching performance of Hunter Barco’s career. The second-year freshman lefty (10-2, 3.81 ERA) gave up Mississippi State’s only run in the bottom of the first and then shut down the Bulldogs the rest of the way. He gave up only four hits, didn’t walk a batter and needed only 91 pitches in going the seven-inning distance. Barco struck out only two hitters, but he got 13 groundouts including a double play grounder to end the sixth inning. By going the full seven innings, Barco gave Florida’s bullpen a day of rest, something that could come in handy against Alabama this afternoon.
While the Bulldogs kept beating the ball into the ground against Barco, Florida hitters were spraying line drives all over the yard. Josh Rivera had the first 4-hit game of his career. Nathan Hickey, who got the surprise start at third base, went 3-5 and Chris Armstrong drove in four runs with two singles and a double. Freshman Sterlin Thompson hit a second inning homer and drove in three runs. All nine starters had at least one hit.