Gators Face Improving Bulldogs

When Florida takes on Georgia in Athens this weekend, the Gators (26-8/9-3 SEC) will take on a much different team than opened the season. The Bulldogs (18-16/8-4 SEC) started out their season 2-7, including a three-game sweep at Stetson. Their rebound came after an injury to outfielder Jonathan Taylor, and Georgia has been one of the toughest teams in conference play since then.

The injury to Taylor happened on March 6 during a home game against Florida State. Taylor collided with a teammate head-on as they went for a fly ball. He underwent emergency surgery to fix fractures of his C5 and C6 vertebrae.

It served as a rallying point for his teammates.

The Bulldogs are 15-8, including beating UCLA All-American right-hander Gerrit Cole and conference series wins over LSU, Mississippi State and Ole Miss. They won the opening game at No. 3 South Carolina before losing the last two to drop the series.

However, it's a completely different team from the one that struggled to start the year.

"They're a really good team that has been playing really well lately," Florida right fielder Preston Tucker said. "They've got a great SEC record so far. Friday will be a tough game because they've got some good starting pitcher."

The Florida-Georgia rivalry hasn't just been one-sided on the football field recently. The Gators are 11-1 in the last four seasons against the Bulldogs, including an 8-1 record in the last three seasons under head coach Kevin O'Sullivan.

The scoreboard may have been one-sided, but the tension on the field has been greater than just another conference series. The rivalry between the two schools always seems to raise the intensity, and this weekend will be no different as it's the same weekend Georgia hosts their spring football game.

"We're playing Georgia, and everybody knows what to expect out of that," Adams said. "It's a big series for us, but we're going to have some fun and come out with a series win."

The series will open Friday night at 7 p.m. with Florida starting right-hander Hudson Randall (5-1, 1.56) against Georgia left-hander Alex Wood (4-3, 3.66). The Bulldogs' sophomore has turned into the team's ace in recent weeks.

"Alex Wood has given them a chance on Friday nights every time he steps on the mound," O'Sullivan said. "He's very aggressive with his fastball. He throws strikes and they play well behind him."

For Randall, it's a trip back home. He is from Atlanta, Ga., native graduated from Dunwoody High School and will have plenty of support amongst the sea of red and black in the crowd Friday night.

"It means a great deal," Randall said. "UGA-Florida is a big rivalry, and with myself being from Georgia, I'm excited to go up there. I've got a whole bunch of friends up there supporting me, so I'm hoping to put on a good show for them."

Saturday's game will start at 5 p.m. and be televised on ESPNU. The Gators will send left-hander Brian Johnson (5-1, 2.54) against Georgia right-hander Michael Palazzone (5-1, 2.28). The Georgia junior has recorded 35 strikeouts in 55.1 innings this season. He isn't a strikeout pitcher, and the Florida head coach sees an easy comparison.

"Palazzone has been outstanding as their Saturday starter, and he's kind of like our Hudson Randall," O'Sullivan said.

Leadoff hitter and second baseman Levi Hyams leads the Georgia lineup. The junior is hitting .348 with a .404 on-base percentage. Outfielder Zack Cone is a first-round prospect for the MLB Draft this summer, and he is hitting .306 with two home runs and 17 RBIs. Kyle Farmer is the run producer in the lineup with four home runs and a team-high 31 RBIs.

"They're very aggressive," O'Sullivan said of the Georgia offense. "They've got some power in the middle of the order and have played well on the weekends. We're going to have to play well if we want to be successful on there."

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