Zunino Leads Gators Past Kentucky

Both times Kentucky (24-29/7-21 SEC) took the lead on Friday, Mike Zunino responded. The Florida catcher's 3-for-4, 5-RBI night continued his case for SEC Player of the Year, but it also helped the Gators (40-14/21-7 SEC) take a one-game lead in the conference after a 9-6 win over the Wildcats.

"What can you say about Mike?" Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "He's seeing the ball really good right now. Hard work is paying off for him. He's always out here for early (batting practice), and when you do that, good things are going to happen."

The first home run came when all the momentum was in Kentucky's dugout. The Gators scored three runs in the second inning on RBI singles from Vickash Ramjit and Bryson Smith, and a sacrifice fly from Nolan Fontana gave the Gators an early 3-0 lead.

The Wildcats answered with four runs of their own, coming on a three-run triple from Chad Wright and an RBI single from Thomas McCarthy. Kentucky responded to Florida's rally by taking a one-run lead. It took the energy out of the crowd and the Florida dugout.

Zunino changed that with one swing.

He drove the first pitch of the third inning into the left field bleachers to tie the game at four. What might look like only one run in the box score might have been the biggest run of the game.

"The best way to describe Mike is he's a clutch player," Fontana said. "He has been a go-to guy for us."

Zunino's second home run put the Gators ahead for good. McCarthy scored on a sacrifice fly for Kentucky after starting the inning with a triple, giving Kentucky a 5-4 lead in the sixth.

Ramjit reached on an error by the third baseman to start Florida's half of the sixth, and a pitch hit Bryson Smith two batters later. After Nolan Fontana flew out, Zunino came up in another crucial spot. He fouled off the first two pitches to fall behind 0-2, but he took back-to-back off-speed pitches in the dirt to even the count at 2-2. Kentucky starting pitcher Taylor Rogers, who was facing Zunino for the fourth time on the night, missed with a fastball inside to force a 3-2 count.

The full count pitch was a mistake. It was a changeup over the inner half of the plate, and Zunino did what he has been doing to the baseball in recent games. He hammered it. When it landed in the left field bleachers, it was his fifth home run in the last three games.

"He made some really good pitches that I just fought off, and I was lucky to get a changeup on the inner half," Zunino said. "I got in a hole, and I just tried to fight as much as I could to stay alive."

The inning looked like it might be over as Rogers had Zunino in a hole. Instead, Zunino put together an at-bat that usually only upper classmen are capable of building, and gave the Gators a win.

"You don't see that very often," O'Sullivan said. "It's one thing to get to a 2-0 or 3-1 count and run into a fastball, but it's another to fight back from an 0-2 count and fight off some tough pitches, then get a pitch you can hit hard like that."

Florida starting pitcher Brian Johnson was sharp outside of one inning. The three-run triple to Wright and RBI single to McCarthy caused a four-run inning that saw him give up a hit and walk a hitter. O'Sullivan was more focused on how Johnson responded after that inning and the positives he showed early in the outing.

"I thought he pitched good other than the one inning," O'Sullivan said. "He had a great changeup going and great tempo to his delivery. We're going to focus on the positives. He had five really good innings."

The control wasn't sharp in the third inning, but Johnson had command of his fastball, curveball and changeup all night.

"I had all three pitches working tonight," Johnson said. "I left one changeup up (on the triple) that went down the line. The past couple outings I've been (allowing the big inning) and then coming out to give up some more. It felt good to have that one bad one and then fight back through it."

Greg Larson threw the final two innings while Austin Maddox relieved him after a leadoff walk. Maddox recorded three fly ball outs to end the game and record his third save of the season.

As good as the news was on the field, the Gators also got some positive news from Tuscaloosa and Athens. Florida came into the night tied for the conference lead with Vanderbilt and South Carolina, but the night ended with the Gators holding a one-game lead after Georgia beat Vanderbilt 5-4 and Alabama beat South Carolina 2-1.

The Gators can clinch a share of the SEC Championship on Friday, but it won't be easy. Kentucky will send 6-9 right-hander Alex Meyer (6-5, 3.06), who is projected as a first-round pick in next month's MLB Draft, to the mound. Florida will counter with its ace, sophomore right-hander Hudson Randall (8-2, 2.14). First pitch is set for 7 p.m.

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