It's a huge relief". Shortstop Justin Tordi said. "Just look at the guys faces right now. It's totally different. Now, we're feeling like we did at the beginning of the season and we're rolling. Every team hits a little skid. We've did that and now we're done with it. We're picking it up and at the end of the season when we need to. It was tough. We were searching for answers, trying everything, switching stuff up. We were just trying to find something that works".
Florida wasted little time getting started offensively. Mississippi State starter Alan Johnson walked senior Jeff Corsaletti, who had worked the Bulldogs right hander to a 3-1 count. Gavin Dickey followed with a bunt that quickly went right to the mound. Johnson wheeled and threw out Corsaletti at second. Adam Davis singled through the hole at short. Three pitches later, Matt LaPorta belted his SEC leading 20th home run of the season with a blast over the fence in left center to give the Gators a 3-0 lead. LaPorta became only the third player in Florida history to hit 20 or more home runs in a season. The other two players were Brad Wilkerson and Ryan Shealy, who both finished with 23 round trippers.
"It looked like a cutter". LaPorta said. "It was on the outer half (of the plate). It's always great when you put up numbers the first couple of innings and jump out on top. It kind of gives the pitchers a little comfort there. They can relax a little more and not worry that every pitch has to be perfect".
"We've been stressing that since we starting losing a couple weeks ago". he continued. "We've gotta get on top. We've gotta get on top. We can't wait until the fifth inning to score runs. Once you get on top, it seems like its a little easier for the team".
The Bulldogs finally scored a run in the third inning. Second baseman Jeffrey Rea swung at the first pitch from Florida starter Bryan Ball and ripped it down the left field line. Ed Easley followed with a single to right. With men on first and third, first baseman Brad Jones grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, which scored Rea. One pitch later Brad Conley grounded out.
Ball (6-3) masterfully held the Bulldogs in check much of the night. The junior struggled in the top of the first, as State loaded the bases with one away, but Ball struck out right fielder Brad Corley on three consecutive pitches and got Joseph Hunter to ground out back to the mound without surrendering a run. Unfortunately, the right hander threw 31 pitches in the inning.
"I felt good" Ball said. "I had a rough start. I honestly didn't think that I'd get that far (after throwing 31 pitches in the first inning). I was thinking that I've got to keep it right here. I had a couple of quick out innings where I didn't throw that many pitches, so I had an opportunity to go a lot further than what I expected".
Oddly enough, Mississippi State came to the plate the remainder of the game and actually helped Ball by swinging at the first pitch. In the third inning when State had the most success, Ball threw only 10 pitches. He threw nine pitches in the sixth and five in the eighth. Ball completed 8.1 innings, allowing eight hits and only two earned runs. He lowered his ERA from 3.02 to 2.92.
Jones drew a walk for Mississippi State in the top of the fifth, but was thrown out on a beautiful double play that saw Tordi dive for a liner hit just within his glove. Upon catching the ball, he jumped up and quickly fired to LaPorta at first for the twin killing on Jones.
Tordi made several beautiful plays defensively for the Gators. The junior has struggled lately at the plate, but ripped a single in the fourth that clearly elevated his confidence as he stepped on first base.
"I was looking out going, please, go through, please go through". Tordi said. "I wasn't even looking at first base. It just feels so good to win. It's such a better feeling, because we haven't felt that way in awile. We're still in the race to win an SEC Championship. We've got to go out there and keep playing hard and now things are starting to go our way again.
The Gators power game emerged again in the fifth, as Dickey led off the inning with a blast on a 2-1 pitch that hit the scoreboard in right field. Davis followed with a single to right. Johnson then walked LaPorta on four straight pitches. Right fielder Brian LeClerc followed with a single to right scoring Davis, giving Florida a 5-1 lead.
With one out in the fourth, LaPorta singled to right. He finished the night two for two with three RBI's and a walk. Two batters later, third baseman Brandon McArthur singled off the glove of MSU reliever Justin Piggott. Catcher Brian Jeroloman took Piggott's 1-0 offering over the right field fence to extend the Gators lead to 8-1.
The Bulldogs pieced together three hits in the top of the ninth, scoring one run. Florida will pitch junior Alan Horne tomorrow, while MSU will throw senior Todd Doolittle.
Buoyed by a strong pitching performance by Luke Hochevar, Tennessee defeated LSU 9-2 in Baton Rouge this evening keeping the Gators a half game back in the SEC regular season Championship. The Gators seemingly feel that they have broken through and will pressure the Vols to maintain the conference lead in Baton Rouge.
"It's been a struggle". LaPorta said. "Any loss is. Especially when you keep losing and we know we're a better ball club than we've shown the past couple of weeks, but as Coach Mac talks about, we've got to break through the barrier, and I think that we did that tonight. I thought we played really well as a team. Everybody chipped in tonight. It wasn't offense. It wasn't just defense. I think that this is where we get the ball rolling. This is the end of the season. This is clutch time".