Puk dominant again for Gators

The last five outings have pushed A.J. Puk into the conversation for the top pick in the 2016 MLB Draft. He did nothing to hurt that on Saturday.

After a slow start, the left-hander found his groove after the first inning before ending his outing with seven shutout innings while the Gators cruised to an 8-2 win over South Florida.

“When you’re left-handed and throw 97 mph, you’ve got a good chance to win, especially when you’ve got that defense behind you,” USF coach Mark Kingston said.

USF and Florida Atlantic will play at noon on Sunday in an elimination game. The winner will face Florida on Sunday at 4 p.m., needing to beat the Gators twice to advance. If Florida wins on Sunday at 4 p.m. or in Monday’s if necessary game at 7 p.m., the Gators will advance to Super Regionals.

Puk allowed four hits and one while giving allowing no runs and striking out eight hitters. He threw 29 pitches in the first inning, as the USF hitters stuck to their game plan to be patient and make him work. Leadoff hitter Kyle Teaf walked to start the game and Kevin Merrell singled after that to give the Bulls a strong start.

After Kevin O’Sullivan came out for a visit before the third hitter, Puk followed by striking out the side around an infield single. Only two runners would reach scoring position after that and no one else would reach third base. Puk came out of the game after the seventh inning riding a streak of 14 straight retired and 18 of the last 19.

He had 99 pitches after six innings, but O’Sullivan allowed him to go back out for the seventh inning. After a 10-pitch inning, there was thought about letting him go out for the eighth inning because of how well the sophomore was pitching.

“He’s at 109 pitches and you’re contemplating leaving him in because he looked like he’s throwing the ball better than in the first,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s still holding his velocity, throwing quality strikes. It seems like once he gets in his rhythm, everything is a strike and at the knees.

“Tonight’s decision wasn’t tough to get him out of the game because he was at 109 pitches, but you’re tempted to try to get another inning because he looks like he’s cruising.”

For Puk, it’s always about finding a rhythm. Sometimes that can take a full three innings before it happens. Looking over his last five starts, his numbers in the first three innings aren’t overly impressive, allowing 18 hits and six walks with four earned runs and 27 strikeouts in 15 innings of work.

Once he gets out of the third inning, it has been smooth sailing. From the fourth inning on in his last five starts, Puk has tossed 18 scoreless innings while allowing one hit and five walks with 31 strikeouts.

Since returning from his suspension following his arrest for climbing a crane on a campus construction site, Puk is 3-0 with a 1.19 ERA, giving up 17 hits and four runs in 30.1 innings with 48 strikeouts.

“Everything was smooth, I found my release point,” Puk said after Saturday’s first inning. “Everything clicked. From there, I’m able to fill the strike zone and compete.”

At the plate, Florida used two-run homers from Harrison Bader and Buddy Reed. Six of the first seven hitters in the Florida lineup had exactly two hits, sparking a 12-hit game for a Florida offense that did it with power on Saturday.

Florida will send Dane Dunning, Alex Faedo or Bobby Poyner to the mound on Sunday at 4 p.m.

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