Bullpen: We’ll get to the starting pitching struggles later, but the Florida bullpen pitched well. In total, the bullpen went 14.2 innings, allowing 13 hits, two walks and one earned run to go with 15 strikeouts. The big number, and the main reason at least one of the bullpen arms should be in the weekend rotation against Alabama next weekend, is the walks. That has been a problem with the rotation, but the bullpen was throwing consistent strikes over the weekend.
With the starting rotation imploding in Oxford, the bullpen was pitching from behind in the first two games, but their effort gave the Gators a chance for a comeback win. That didn’t happen, but they did their job at Ole Miss.
Mike Rivera: There weren’t many positives at the plate, but freshman catcher Mike Rivera was certainly one of them. He went 5-12 with a double and five RBI on the weekend, and his batting average is all the way up to .291 thanks to a recent hot streak after it was below .250 for the first weeks of the season.
His defense behind the plate wasn’t as good this weekend as it has been to start the year, but he’s still Florida’s best defensive catcher. With Josh Tobias suspended, he even played some third base in game on after Christian Hicks and John Sternagel were taken out of the game.
Starting pitching: This was the most glaring issue in Florida’s first series loss of the year. For a second straight week, Logan Shore didn’t look like himself. His pitches were up in the zone again and his off-speed pitches weren’t located well enough. He went just 3.2 innings. A.J. Puk could only go 2.1 innings, plagued again by walks and issues locating his pitches. Dane Dunning had the best start of the Florida pitchers, but he was pulled after 4.1 innings with one run allowed. Kevin O’Sullivan had all of his best bullpen arms available, so it made sense to pull Dunning at the first sign of trouble and avoid the blowup inning he has been prone to at times this year.
But what now?
O’Sullivan has a lot of decisions to make this week. Shore’s spot in the rotation feels safe simply because two bad starts shouldn’t override his career dominance that came before it. Dunning wasn’t good against Tennessee but bounced back for a fairly solid start at Ole Miss. Puk was good against Tennessee before a terrible start against the Rebels.
There could be at least one change to the rotation against Alabama. Puk could be the most likely to be replaced because his 4.72 ERA, 13 walks and five hit batters in 26.2 innings is not good enough with the quality of arms Florida has on this staff. He still has a massive upside on the mound and will be a high draft pick even if he struggles through the next season and a half, but the Gators need better. The part that could keep Puk in the rotation is the long-term view. If the Gators want to make it to Omaha and win big, they need Puk to reach his potential. That can't happen if he's not getting innings.
Bobby Poyner and Danny Young can be quality options and help Florida compete for an SEC title. They’re experienced and have combined to walk five batters (four from Young) in 41.2 innings pitched this year. At this point, that’s could be what Florida needs. The defense is playing at an elite level and the offense has been fine, even if both of those areas struggled this weekend. The Gators need starting pitchers who can stop giving away free base runners and throw strikes. The coaches are high on freshman Alex Faedo, but he showed some of the same youthful mistakes on Tuesday against Florida State. He was brought into a difficult spot with two runners on and a 2-0 count, and the coaches still believe he can be a big contributor this year.
Poyner or Young could very well join the rotation next week, but it's still up in the air at this point. O’Sullivan liked starting the year with Poyner and right-hander Taylor Lewis at the back end of the bullpen to play matchups, and pushing one of those lefties into the rotation still leaves another lefty with Lewis for late game situations. But having both in the bullpen makes Florida special in the late inning.