Gators Clinch Series Against Alabama

The Florida offense didn't struggle with getting a lead early in the season. Instead, the problems came in adding onto the lead when the Gators had one. If Saturday night was any indication, the recently improved Florida offense might be hitting its stride at the right time. No. 5 Florida poured on four runs in the seventh inning to secure a 9-3 win over Alabama at McKethan Stadium.

The key blow came from catcher Mike Zunino who lined a three-run home run into the left field bleachers to push the lead to 7-2. It came after the Gators (30-10, 13-4 SEC) looked poised to waste a base runner. Brian Johnson started the inning with a triple, but Tyler Thompson struck out and Bryson Smith grounded out to a drawn in infield. After Nolan Fontana walked on four pitches, Zunino hit a fastball from reliever Trey Pilkington over the left field fence.

The Gators only had a two-run lead before that swing, so stranding a leadoff triple would have put momentum back in the Alabama dugout. Any chance of the Crimson Tide offense, which has scored two runs in 18 innings this series, feeling like they could come back was erased.

"He threw me a breaking ball and hung it up there," said Zunino, who went 2-for-4 with four RBIs on the day. "I just wanted to put a good swing on it with two strikes and barrel it up. I've been seeing breaking balls with two strikes all year. I struggled with it early, but I'm just trying to see them up."

Starting pitcher Brian Johnson (6-1) wasn't right for the first three innings of the game. He allowed seven hits in the first two innings before walking two batters in the third inning. Before Saturday's game, Johnson had only walked eight batters in 52 innings this season. His command wasn't as sharp as it has been in most starts this season, but he battled through it to give the Gators a chance to win.

Considering the nine base runners Johnson allowed in the first three innings, it was impressive that the sophomore was able to hold Alabama to two runs in his five innings. Alabama left 13 runners on base during the game because the team went 2-for-14 at the plate with runners in scoring position.

Johnson allowed a leadoff home run to Brandt Hendricks in the second inning after the Crimson Tide scored in the first inning on an RBI single by Austen Smith.

"Sully told me during the game to just do damage control and keep it at one (an inning) if I had to," Johnson said. "There's only so much they can do when you only give up one."

The left-hander tossed five innings, allowing seven hits, two runs and two walks while recording five strikeouts. The head coach was more excited about his ability to strand runners when he got into trouble.

"The bottom line is, he didn't give up a crooked number," Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "He gave up one in the first and one in the second, then he bowed his neck and made some pitches. It's not always going to be an easy ride, but I'm awful proud of the way he battled. His damage control was outstanding. I think he learned a lot about himself tonight."

The Crimson Tide have proven tough for Johnson in his young career. In two starts against Alabama, the sophomore has an 8.64 ERA. Against every other team, his career ERA is 3.46.

"The game of baseball is just full of little things," Johnson said. "I battled back and worked through it, but they're a good team and swung the bats well today."

The Florida offense scored four runs in the first two innings. Mike Zunino used a one-out single to score Bryson Smith, who started the game off with a double. After Preston Tucker doubled to left field, Josh Adams hit a sacrifice fly to score Zunino.

It was a good thing for Florida that Johnson settled down when he did. After the Gators scored two runs second inning on a Tyler Thompson RBI double and Bryson Smith sacrifice fly, Alabama starting pitcher Adam Morgan settled down. He retired 11 straight Florida batters before catcher Mike Zunino reached on a fielding error by third baseman Brett Booth. After the error, Morgan sat down four straight, making it 15 out of 16 batters in a row.

"He mixes his pitches extremely well," Zunino said. "He threw his fastball, curveball and changeup for strikes. We got some good swings on some balls, but he kept us off balance for the most part."

That streak ended when Johnson got his first at-bat of the game to start the seventh inning. After coming out of the game on the mound, he replaced Vickash Ramjit in the designated hitter spot and hit a double into the right field corner, advancing to third on a fielding error by right fielder Brandt Hendricks. He scored on Zunino's three-run home run.

Ben McMahan added a pinch-hit home run in the eighth inning to make the score 9-2.

The Gators will go for the sweep on Sunday when they send freshman right-hander Karsten Whitson (4-0, 2.38) against an Alabama left-hander Jonathan Smart (2-0, 2.36). Smart, Alabama's closer with seven saves, will make his second start of the season. First pitch is set for 1 p.m.

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