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Florida 8, USF 2: Behind A.J. Puk and potent outfield, Gators power to regional final

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Florida got another ace performance from A.J. Puk and pop from its outfield in another dominant win.

@GatorZoneBB

It could have been different for USF in the nightcap of Saturday action at the Gainesville Regional. The Bulls, playing as the home team, loaded the bases in the bottom of the first at McKethan Stadium.

But then A.J. Puk reared back and threw fire past USF catcher Luke Borders.

And, like that, it was over.

Puk threw seven scoreless innings, giving up just two hits after that first frame, and struck out eight batters while showcasing the dazzling repertoire that should make him one of the first picks of the 2016 MLB Draft. And Florida's bats hammered away at USF pitching all night, as the Gators claimed an 8-2 victory and a spot in the Gainesville Regional final.

Florida will await the winner of a matinee Florida Atlantic-USF game to be played on Sunday. That game will begin at noon; Florida's game is slated to begin at 4 p.m., pending a speedy completion of the first one.

The excellence of Puk's performance can hardly be understated: He was beyond brilliant, mixing his near-unhittable mid-90s fastball with a vicious curveball and very good command to leave Bulls batters helpless. After that rocky first inning, and a leadoff single in the second, he retired 14 consecutive batters for the Gators, eventually yielding a last hit in the seventh inning. Increasingly, he looks like the team's best pitcher, eclipsing even reliable ace and Friday starter Logan Shore, who had his own scoreless outing a night before.

It helps, though, that Florida's offense is giving its staff breathing room.

Outfielders Buddy Reed and Harrison Bader led the hit parade on this evening. Reed slugged a two-run homer to right in the third to open the scoring, and later added a double, while Bader blasted his own two-run shot, a big fly to left, an inning later. Florida would plate another run in the fifth on a Jeremy Vasquez double — Vasquez, often the Gators' starter in right field, was a designated hitter on this night, as usual catcher/DH Mike Rivera sat with a bruised knee sustained on a hit by pitch Friday against Florida A&M — and got three runs in the ninth, with right fielder Ryan Larson producing the last one with a hot grounder to third that resulted in a dropped catch at first.

And Florida's defense is repeatedly showing why it is the nation's best. Tonight, it was Bader who shined brightest, with a diving stab a half-inning after his home run...

...and a throw roped from left in the bottom of the ninth that stopped a USF rally in its tracks. First baseman Peter Alonso also helped squash that rally, with a fine play to get the lead runner on a fielder's choice earlier in the inning, and Josh Tobias made an excellent stop and throw on a Kyle Teaf to the hot corner in the second inning that prevented Puk from dealing with another higher-leverage situation.

The only issue through two games of NCAA Tournament play for Florida — and it is minor — was the performance of reliever Kirby Snead on this night. Snead worked into and out of a jam in the eighth, allowing one run, then gave closer Taylor Lewis work to do in the ninth by allowing two more of his five hits. Lewis and Florida's defense shut the door on the Bulls, to be sure, but Snead wasn't as sharp as he often is.

And that's what looking for the negatives with this Florida team turns up right now, as the Gators continue a blaze through postseason play that began in a noon game after a post-midnight marathon at the SEC Tournament. In its two games in this Gainesville Regional, Florida has outscored its opponents 27-2, tallied 28 hits at the plate, and fanned 17 batters from the mound; in its last six games, Florida is outscoring its opponents by an absurd 57-8 margin.

Put simply, Florida is playing baseball about as well as it can be played at the collegiate level. If the Gators can uphold this level of play for three more weeks, they could hold up something at the end of this season.