Just like the Florida Gators baseball team’s trek through its 2017 SEC schedule, the high-stakes game with Kentucky on Saturday began on a down note.
And much like the Gators have done in the last two months, they responded to adversity, and secured the loftiest perch in the conference.
The Gators rallied from a 2-0 deficit and a scary-looking moment for Dalton Guthrie to fell the Wildcats in the rubber game of their final SEC series on Saturday, taking a 6-4 victory that ensures them no less than a share of an SEC championship.
Florida earned that share by virtue of improving to 21-9 in SEC play, a mark no team other than LSU can match.
If the Tigers can complete a sweep of Mississippi State in Starkville — and dodge the inclement weather throughout the Gulf Coast that has delayed both baseball and softball games for the Tigers, the latter set to be played in Baton Rouge — on Saturday night, the Gators would share the SEC title. If LSU falls, Florida wins the crown outright.
However, Florida will be the No. 1 seed in next week’s SEC Tournament regardless of the result of the evening’s game, thanks to a series victory over the Tigers in Gainesville earlier this year.
Florida starter Jackson Kowar yielded runs in the first and third innings to the ‘Cats, who hit the Gators’ trio of top-line starters with MLB potential — Alex Faedo, Brady Singer, and Kowar — as hard as any team has this season.
But the Gators struck back in the fourth, as Guthrie lined a single off Kentucky starter Justin Lewis for Florida’s first hit of the day. Guthrie would leave after that play, having sprained his ankle while stepping on first base and beating out the throw, and appeared on crutches after the game, with Florida saying he will “rest this week,” presumably missing the SEC Tournament.
Lewis, though, would stay in. And whether thanks to Lewis’s seeming discomfort or unrelated poor pitching or good hitting, Florida would take the lead from him and the Wildcats moments later, as Nelson Maldonado hit a three-run homer to put the Gators up 3-2.
Florida would add two runs in the fifth and one in the sixth, permitting the Gators to survive a two-run shot to right off stud closer Michael Byrne — his first runs allowed in more than a month — without the tying run ever reaching base. Byrne responded to that homer and a subsequent single by getting Kentucky’s final five batters out, three on strikes.
When the final out came, out came the Gators from their dugout, SEC champions despite 0-3 and 6-6 starts to conference play, and winners of a series over recent nemesis Kentucky for the first time since 2012.
The SEC title is Florida’s 14th in program history, and the fourth under Kevin O’Sullivan.