JJ Schwarz the Gators hero with game winning grand slam

The Florida Gators (27-13, 10-8 SEC) took the series with South Carolina (24-15, 9-9 SEC) on Saturday with an 8th inning game winning grand slam from junior J.J. Schwarz that turned a 5-3 deficit to a 7-5 advantage in what would be the final score of the rubber match between the Gators and Gamecocks at McKethan Stadium on the University of Florida campus.

In a game that mimicked yesterday’s contest in sometimes eerily fashion, he Gamecocks took an early 2-0 lead in the first just like Friday. A day after losing to South Carolina 4-2, Florida found itself down in the eighth inning with bases loaded and nobody out. After plating just a run in the eighth Friday, Schwarz grand slam was the biggest difference in the two scenarios and led to the Gators taking the series with the Gamecocks.

“We’ve been looking for a big hit for a while and obviously J.J. was able to come up and hit a ball hard,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said shortly after the game. “It was a ball he got all of.”

Sophomore Jackson Kowar started for Florida and got off to a bad start in inning one. Gamecock T.J. Hopkins singled up the middle to lead off the game. L.T. Tolbert then hit a double just out of the reach of center fielder Austin Langworthy that allowed Hopkins to score from first for an early Gamecocks lead. Kowar then was called for the first of two balks advancing Tolbert to third. Gamecock freshman Carlos Cortes who has had a terrific season, then singled in Tolbert giving the Gamecocks a 2-0 lead. After allowing another couple of hits, Kowar was able to strike out Jacob Olson to limit the damage.

The Gators got a run in the second inning and a run in the third to tie up the game. After loading the bases with no outs in the second, junior Christian Hicks hit into a double play, but scored Nelson Maldonado. Again the Gators had bases loaded in the third, this time with one out when senior Ryan Larson grounded out to second but scored sophomore Deacon Liput on the play.

After a scoreless fourth inning, the Gamecocks added a run in the fifth as a questionable second balk call on Kowar took away a double play ball. After Hopkins advanced to second on the balk, Cortes, who lined out to Schwarz the pitch before, doubled down the right field line scoring Hopkins.

The Gators tied it up again in the fifth with a solo home run from sophomore Nelson Maldonado who hit a high fast ball into the left field bleachers.

Just an inning later, the Gamecocks added two runs on a longer shot in left by catcher Chris Cullen with Cortes already on base.

The 5-3 lead would stand just half an inning as Schwarz came up to bat against reliever Colin Bowers who took the loss in the contest.

While reliever Garrett Milchin got the win for the Gators having been on the mound in the inning that Schwarz made the difference, Kowar performed well after a shaky start.

“I thought Jackson threw the ball fine and he got us into the seventh,” O’Sullivan said. “There were some balls that weren’t particularly hit that hard (in his last inning), but it was good to get him close to 100 pitches. Horvath came in and did a nice job and obviously Garrett came in with two pitches and two outs and Michael Byrne closed it out again.”

It was Kowar’s longest outing in terms of number of pitches (98).

“It was big for him to pitch into the seventh,” O’Sullivan said. “I know he’s disappointed about the home run he gave up to Cullen, but we’re not going to be where we want to be at the end of the year without Jackson Kowar. We have to kind of let him go a little bit and work his way out of situations and jams. I thought he did a nice job today. Other than maybe the one pitch to Cullen, I thought he threw the ball very well. I’m so glad he got us into the seventh inning.

The gators were out-hit 13-7, but eight walks were a big difference in the game making starter Adam Hill leave the contest earlier than they had hoped.

I thought a bunch of guys had some good at-bats today,” O’Sullivan said. “I know we had eight free passes. That probably helped us early on with Hill and his start.

“(Nelson Maldonado has) been swinging the bat good. Christian Hicks has been giving us quality at-bats. Keenan Bell has been giving us some quality at-bats. I know he had a tough day today.”

As usual, the Gators were good in the field, sometimes flashing some glove, like Christian Hicks at third did a couple of times on Saturday.

“We didn’t make any errors today,” he said. “Hicksy made a nice play to end one of the innings. We only walked two in the nine innings we pitched.”

The Gators now stand in sole possession of second place in the SEC East with a favorable schedule to finish the season. They are in the talk about possibly being a top seed in the NCAA Tournament at the end of the year. A game like Saturday was a big one.

“It was an important game for us,” O’Sullivan said. “It was one of those games that hopefully pays dividends down the road when the committee gets together.

“There are a lot of teams that are sitting around .500 in this league and there’s not a whole lot of separation. I look at that RPI thing… we’re sitting there right at 9 or 10. A game like today keeps us right there.

Florida hits the road again next weekend for a three-game series in Athens against the Georgia Bulldogs (16-24, 5-12 SEC). Friday’s opener is at 7 p.m. and will stream online via SEC Network+, accessible through the WatchESPN app.

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