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Florida 1, FSU 0: Gators carried by pitching, par for 2017’s course

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Florida’s pitching has picked up its hitting all year.

 
@GatorsBB

The script on Tuesday night was the same as it has been for much of recent memory when Florida and Florida State meet on the baseball diamond: In a close, low-scoring game, the Gators’ pitching was what dominated, and the Gators were who prevailed.

This time, in a 1-0 win in Gainesville that came in the first of three games constituting the annual Florida-FSU midweek series, it was a handful of freshmen that did the throwing — and the dominating — for the Gators.

Nate Brown started, and allowed just three hits and a hit batsman in five shutout innings. Andrew Baker cleaned up the minor trouble that Kirby McMullen — there’s always a Kirby — created in the sixth, as Florida State got its fourth and final runner in scoring position on the night on a single by Taylor Walls and a sacrifice by Dylan Busby. And Baker and Tyler Dyson were perfect through the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings, striking out five batters between them, to seal the victory.

Baker got credited for the win, because his 2.2 innings of work bookended the seventh inning. That’s when Florida broke through at bat, plating leadoff doubler Jonathan India on a two-out Mark Kolozsvary single for the only run of the night.

This was a pitchers’ party, to be sure. India’s double was one of just two extra-base hits on the night — Florida catcher Mike Rivera, hitting ninth in the order, had the other — and FSU pitchers scattered Florida’s six hits almost as well as Florida pitchers distributed the Seminoles’ four, with that bottom of the seventh representing just one of the two half-innings with more than one hit on the evening. The other was the top of the fifth, when FSU put runners on second and third with consecutive two-out singles — the latter a bunt single — before Brown induced an inning-ending flyout.

But Florida should be comfortable in games like this. They seem keen on playing as many as possible this year.

Tuesday’s game was the Gators’ 18th of the year — they improved to 13-5 with the win — and the 11th in which Florida scored five or fewer runs. Every opponent Florida has faced other than Ivy League outfit Columbia has managed to hold the mighty Gators to five or fewer runs at least once, and midweek foes have had even more success, limiting Florida to 14 runs in six contests.

That hasn’t prevented Florida from being an elite team nationally, thanks to the Gators’ pitching. Florida’s team ERA is at a marvelous 2.31 after Tuesday night, and its staff has 183 strikeouts and just 49 walks in 163.1 innings of work this year. Six Gators hurlers have ERAs lower than the team’s — including junior Alex Faedo and sophomores Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar, Florida’s fearsome weekend rotation — and two of the worst ERAs belong to Brown and Baker, who were each excellent against the Seminoles.

And Florida’s 13-5 record is comprised of an 11-1 mark in more consequential weekend series and a 2-4 record in midweek games that reflects losses to Jacksonville, Florida Gulf Coast — home and away — and UCF. All three of those programs have winning records — and 15-3 UCF and 14-3 Florida Gulf Coast look like potential NCAA Tournament teams — but that record is a stark reminder that Florida, despite having a stocked cabinet of talent, has yet to put things together on offense.

Florida’s lineup has plenty of good hitters, but the Gators are hitting just .247 as a team, and their .337 on-base and .381 slugging percentages are hardly all that much better. (Florida’s 2016 triple-slash? .278/.370/.418.) Potential MLB Draft first-rounder JJ Schwarz is hitting .221 and slugging .353; likely early pick Rivera is at .193 and .281, and has yet to hit a homer.

Just four Florida hitters have five or more extra-base hits, and the only one of them who has that many and is hitting better than .300 is freshman Keenan Bell, who has been a revelation. He and senior Ryan Larson, who had nine extra-base hits in 338 at-bats in three years prior to 2017 but became a hero over the weekend by socking two dingers to help lift Florida past Seton Hall, are maybe the two hitters truly outperforming expectations this year, and they’re only just barely getting worked into Kevin O’Sullivan’s lineup. Bell and Larson have each played in just 13 of Florida’s 18 games, and have 13 starts combined.

And neither is a true panacea for what ails Florida’s offense. Bell started on Tuesday night, and went 0-for-3 — with three strikeouts — despite coming up twice with men on. Larson is most useful as a utility piece who can play either corner outfield position, and has yet to make consecutive starts this year.

So the Gators are left mostly to hope that their offense will come around.

And it will, probably: Florida gives too many at-bats to good players who have consistently produced above their current level to think that this is the true talent level of this order, and there’s plenty of promise to go with the disappointment, like the pop-or-walk work of freshman Austin Langworthy, who owns a bizarre triple-slash of .221/.400/.426 by virtue of drawing 15 walks and knocking two doubles and two homers, and the steady production of Deacon Liput, who has quietly rapped out 21 hits in 64 at-bats and become an unavoidable part of the top of Florida’s order.

But that offense being mediocre to bad has only cost the Gators one weekend game thus far, and its underperformance on Tuesday couldn’t prevent Florida from shutting out the Seminoles for the third straight time.

It’s not news that Florida has dominated its rivals...

...and done so primarily from the mound:

And it’s not a shocker to say that all of that dominance won’t be worth much to most Florida fans who aren’t diehard Florida baseball fans if the Gators sputter to the end again in the NCAA Tournament, as they have in most of their postseason trips under O’Sullivan.

But for now, Florida is getting enough from the arms that throw to compensate for the ones that swing.

And if the latter changes while the former stays the same? Watch out.