On Tuesday night in Tallahassee, the Florida Gators finally brought their bats on the road.
They brought their brooms, too.
Florida erupted for four runs in the second inning to erase one early Florida State lead, then scored six runs in the top of the fourth to take the lead for good before holding on down the stretch for a 10-7 win that completes a second regular season sweep of the Seminoles in as many years.
Christian Hicks had a career-best four RBI on 3-for-5 hitting, and Jonathan India cleared the bases in the top of the fourth with a three-run double that made the score 10-4 in the Gators’ favor.
Florida’s offense suddenly finding its footing — the 10-run outburst was Florida’s best showing away from home all season, and just the Gators’ second game of double-digit runs in 2017 — helped compensate for a shaky start by Florida pitchers that allowed the Seminoles to push runs across the plate for a change.
FSU notched two runs against first-time starter Tyler Dyson in the bottom of the first on a Taylor Walls leadoff homer and a Drew Mendoza double, then plated single runs in the second and third innings to halve and erase Florida’s lead, respectively.
But Florida answered with its six-run frame, thanks to doubles by Hicks and India. And the Gators’ lead was never really threatened for the rest of the night: Nick Horvath striking out the side in the bottom of the fourth — after Kirby McMullen and Frank Rubio combined to load the bases without recording an out — dashed the Seminoles’ best chance to cut into the advantage, and Austin Langworthy got a deep flyout to finish the game and keep the tying run from coming to the plate after yielding two runs in the bottom of the ninth.
The victory gives Florida a bit of positive feeling heading into perhaps its most daunting road trip of the year, a three-game sojourn to similarly up-and-down Vanderbilt that begins on Thursday. The Gators and Commodores both sit at 6-6 in SEC play, and while Vandy’s hopes of hosting NCAA Tournament play are faint at best, Florida’s chances of doing so are still healthy — but not so healthy that a second straight series loss to a team that didn’t have a winning record in conference play would not do serious damage to them.
And while an offensive explosion against the back of Florida State’s rotation is nice, the Seminoles pitchers the Gators touched up for their 10 runs exited the night with 4.43 and 5.35 ERAs. In contrast, Vanderbilt’s top two starters, Drake Fellows and Patrick Raby, each have sub-3.00 ERAs, and despite his 4.81 ERA and 1-4 record in 2017, No. 3 starter Kyle Wright should scare Florida: He shut out the Gators in Gainesville in 2016, fanning 10 batters and never allowing a runner to reach second.
That Florida offense was much better than this one, too. And this one managed to score 10 runs on the road and still leave plenty of cause for alarm.
JJ Schwarz was 1-for-6 against the Seminoles on Tuesday, stranding four batters. Florida’s top three of Deacon Liput, Dalton Guthrie, and Schwarz, in fact, went 2-for-15, and Liput’s two RBI came on a groundout and a sacrifice fly. Hicks, despite his fine night, left five runners on base, three of them as Florida failed to capitalize on having the bases loaded with one out in the fifth inning.
On the night, the Gators produced 18 baserunners by virtue of their hits and walks — three FSU errors helped get three other runners on board — and still managed to leave 11 of those potential runs dying on the basepaths, giving Florida an ignominious streak of four straight games with double-digit runners left on base.
Worst of all, Florida may have lost catcher Mike Rivera for an extended period of time. The Gators’ catcher, third on the team in both hits and RBI, left the game with an injury incurred during an at-bat, and was regarded with some concern by Kevin O’Sullivan as he exited.
If Rivera — also the Gators’ best defensive catcher, which he proved once again by picking off a runner at second on Tuesday — misses a significant stretch of this season, it will rob Florida’s lineup of one of its better and more experienced batters. It could also force Schwarz back behind the plate, where he has struggled to juggle the responsibilities of hitting and calling games before — in years when he was hitting far more effectively than he is as a junior — or dump a lot of responsibility in the lap of Mark Kolozsvary, who has started only infrequently as Florida’s backstop during his time in Gainesville.
Those long-view takeaways from Tuesday may seem like a diminution of what the Gators did on the diamond. In truth, though, it’s hard to see Florida sweeping FSU for the second straight regular season as much more than pretty cool — because it’s not unexpected, or all that impressive, for these Gators, who have dominated FSU in recent years.
Last night, the Gators won for the 15th time in their last 18 tries against the Seminoles, completed their fourth regular season sweep of FSU since 2012, and continued an O’Sullivan-era tradition of chipping away at a series lead the Seminoles have enjoyed for decades.
Since beginning his tenure at Florida with a 5-11 stretch against Mike Martin’s program, O’Sullivan’s Gators have flipped the script, embarking on an 18-5 tear over the last six seasons. If Florida wins 18 of its next 23 games against FSU, it still be one game back of the Seminoles in the schools’ all-time series — but given that Florida State’s baseball program is one of the nation’s best to not win the College World Series, and that Florida’s baseball program was rarely great during the long plateau of Martin’s legendary tenure in Tallahassee, just getting the edge in the series into striking range is a significant achievement for O’Sullivan.
These days, even brief advantages for the Seminoles in the series are rare. The lead FSU held after the first inning on Tuesday? It was the first one the Seminoles held after any inning against Florida this year — and it lasted about 15 minutes, and not even a full half-inning. FSU’s seven runs were a veritable eruption in their own right — as many as FSU scored on Florida over six games in 2016 — and still, the Seminoles lost by three runs at home.
But this FSU team is squarely in the middle of the pack in a rising ACC this season, and unlikely to host NCAA Tournament play. Winning three midweek games over FSU even in years when the Seminoles are good enough to host or compete for a national seed is, frankly, better for the Gators’ egos than their postseason outlook; winning three midweek games off these Seminoles will not move the meter very much at all, at least nationally.
What Florida did at the plate with its bats on Tuesday, in other words, is a fair bit more important than what the Gators did with their brooms in Tallahassee.
And though Florida won’t get to break out those brooms again until at least the NCAA Tournament, it will need its bats to travel to Nashville and Gainesville and elsewhere in the SEC to make this 2017 season more than just another one of dominating in-state rivals and disappointing in June.