Gators drop series opener to Auburn

Heading into a key six-game stretch in Southeastern Conference play to end the regular season, the Gators got off to a bad start. Sloppy base running and issuing walks were problems early for Florida before Auburn starter Conner Kendrick cruised through the first six innings of work. The Gators started their comeback too late as Auburn secured a 7-4 win at McKethan Stadium on Friday.

The Gators knew what Conner Kendrick was planning to do on Friday. He doesn't light up the radar gun, instead using location and his off-speed pitches to have success. Florida wanted to counteract that, but the execution struggled.

"We had a plan coming into the game," Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "We felt like we wanted his pitch count up a bit and avoid the 8-, 9-, 10-pitch innings. We didn't get off on the right foot because he had an eight-pitch (first) inning."

It didn't get much better from there. Florida had just four hits and no walks in the first six innings. Its best threat early came on a two-out single by Richie Martin when third base coach Craig Bell sent the runner around third base, only to be thrown out by about five feet.

The plan to stay patient and foul pitches off didn't work. The Gators have been an aggressive offense throughout the season, and that approach carried into Friday's game. Kendrick stayed out of the heart of the plate, instead throwing off-speed pitches out of the zone that Florida swung at and missed.

"We chased out of the zone on some pitches, and they capitalized on it," Florida first baseman Vickash Ramjit said.

Zack Powers was picked off after a one-out walk in the second inning. Josh Tobias was also caught in a run down between second and third after a comebacker in the second inning. Later that inning, Harrison Bader was thrown out to end the inning on Martin's single.

Kendrick's pickoff move created issues for Florida, keeping the Gators off balance at first base even when they weren't stealing.

"Base running mistakes kill momentum of everything," Florida catcher Taylor Gushue said. "It brings your whole morale down as a team. They just can't happen."

Early in the game, it looked like Jonathon Crawford would be prepared to hold up his side of the duel with Kendrick. That lasted only three innings. As has plagued him throughout the season, Crawford had a strong outing until the one big inning crept in.

On Friday, that came in the fourth inning. Crawford erased a leadoff walk with a double play, but gave up a single after that. After getting up on second baseman Jordan Ebert 1-2 in the count, Crawford lost his control and eventually walked Ebert. Then came the big swing from Ryan Tella, a towering three-run home run to right field, giving the Tigers a 3-0 lead early.

"The walk before the three-run homer probably hurt him more than anything," O'Sullivan said.

It was an issue all night for Florida. The Gators walked six hitters with three of them coming around to score runs for Auburn.

"We didn't command the fastball. Jonathon didn't as well as he has in the past," O'Sullivan said.

Gushue added, "Walks always hurt no matter what. They did hurt us tonight, especially with two outs and a man on first, then we walk a guy and give up a three-run bomb. That one doesn't feel good, especially when we had a 1-2 count to lead him off. It just leaves a bad taste in your mouth."

The Gators will try to erase that bad taste on Saturday. Game two is set to begin at 7 p.m. with freshman left-hander Danny Young taking the mound for Florida.

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