BASEBALL: Gators drop heartbreaker to Aggies

Another Sunday, another game in which the only people wearing orange and blue to cross home plate were the children that circle the bases with Albert the mascot after the game was over. The Florida Gators (9-6) dropped the final game of a weekend series with Texas A&M on Sunday, losing 1-0 in front of 3,018 sun-soaked fans.

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Never before during his tenure at UF has Coach Pat McMahon seen his team lose its sixth game of the season prior to March 21, but he described the loss as an asset to the development of his squad.

"This series is going to help our club mature and get better," McMahon said. "Texas A&M is not that different from most of the clubs we will play this year."

McMahon likened the Aggies (13-2) to the Southeastern Conference opponents ahead on the Gators' schedule.

"Texas A&M is a very veteran ball club; they play in front of a great home environment," McMahon. "They are very familiar and used to playing in a very good league. By design, it was a great series for us to grow up, and we did grow up an awful lot."

Growth implies a measurable expansion or development was exhibited.

The UF pitching staff had an impressive 1.67 ERA during the series, allowing only five earned runs in three games.

"When there's a target on your back, which there is on our back, you're getting teams that are saying 'this is a chance for us to move up, this is an opportunity to step forward,'" McMahon said. "That's the position you want to be in. Our goal is to fix from within to get better and better. When you look at us from a defensive perspective, we've got some openings. We've got some jobs to fill. We have to continue to defend better. From an offensive perspective, we've got to find some answers."

Florida starter Kris Gawriluk was tagged with the loss despite not allowing an earned run. With two outs in the second inning, freshman second baseman Avery Barnes made a throwing error to first base on a ground ball, extending the inning and loading the bases. Gawriluk hit the following Aggie batter, Blake Stouffer with a pitch to score the only run of the game.

UF catcher Brian Jeroloman, who had one of the Gators' three hits in the game, said Gawriluk's errant pitch came after the inning should have already ended.

"There were things that went on in that inning," Jeroloman said. "That one pitch didn't make a difference that inning. There were a couple of things before that. We had a couple of mistakes that inning.

"It was a curveball. Kris Gawriluk is a great pitcher. He's a guy that can throw any pitch at any time. That one pitch wasn't a factor."

At the time, it appeared that the Gators' had escaped.

Gawriluk (0-2) retired all three A&M batters in the third inning, but was lifted after allowing a leadoff walk to left fielder Adam Hale.

McMahon said Gawriluk twisted his ankle while facing Hale, prompting a move to sophomore reliever Tommy Wynn.

"You try to come in with a positive attitude, get the job done, do your role, don't do more than you are capable of and just come in and get it done," Wynn said. Wynn allowed a pair of hits in the inning but kept the Aggies off of the scoreboard by throwing Hale out at home on a suicide squeeze by Parker Dalton.

Wynn had been frustrated with a lack of playing time earlier in the season and felt better after being trusted to pitch in a one-run game.

"It helps a lot," Wynn said. "Not getting out there against batters all the time, it puts you down a little bit. When you get the opportunity, you have to take advantage of it. That's what I wanted to do today --- come out and prove that I've got it and I can help this team when they need it."

Wynn's three innings were the longest relief stint of his career.

"Hopefully in the future I'll some more opportunities to come in the game," Wynn said.

The Aggies left nine runners on base, but the Gators only had four base runners in the game.

"Our bats will come around, it's just a matter of time before they get it going," Wynn said. "We've got a great offense, we're not too worried about it."

Wynn echoed McMahon's opinion that the loss will ultimately benefit the Gators.

"Texas A&M is a great team, the Big XII is a great conference," Wynn said. "They're going to be up there at the end of the year too. Games like this are going to help us down the road, that's how we're looking at it now."

With a team batting average of .145 during the series, the UF offense has nowhere to go but up.

"Collectively, right now offensively we have a press," McMahon said. "We have a press going against us when you see as many elevated balls as we're doing. Typically, one or two guys in an (batting) order are swinging it well."

Only three Gator hitters had two or more hits in the series.

"We've got guys looking to each other saying 'hey, who can get this through?' The result is that there are guys in our order that can be pitched around now," McMahon said. "The fact remains, we have to be more selective, we have to put the ball on the ground in pressure, we have to do a better job with our get the leadoff guy on base so we can create an offense. That has to happen."

It didn't happen when the Gators began to mount a rally in the eighth inning.

Austin Pride led off the inning, reaching first after being hit by Texas A&M starting pitcher Austin Creps (2-1). Jeroloman followed by hitting a ground ball to shortstop, but Parker committed an error while looking to start a double play.

With two runners on base and three outs to work with, the Gators seemed poised to take the lead.

Designated hitter Cody Neer tried to bunt the runners over, but fouled off the first two strikes. McMahon signaled for Neer to try another bunt despite the 1-2 count against him.

"We had an offensive opportunity in the eighth (inning) and didn't do a few of the little things well, things that we have done well this year," McMahon said. "In fact, we were going to go ahead and put the ball on the ground with even two strikes. They created a defense and let us swing." The A&M first and third basemen charged towards the plate to field a bunt, prompting to call for a full swing that could lift the ball over the infield. Neer hit the ball, flied out to short right field. "Pop up balls in this league, unless they go out of the yard --- which we'd like to see --- elevated balls at this level (won't win games) and we have to do a better job of forcing defense to play," McMahon said.

The Gator dugout seemed deflated after Neer's lengthy at bat ended in vain, almost expecting what would follow. David Cash pinch hit, but flied out to center field. Brandon McArthur prevented the left fielder from feeling left out of the action when he also flied out, this time to left field.

Texas A&M would continue the trend of squandering a scoring opportunity in the ninth inning when two runners were caught stealing. The Aggies entered the series with 37 stolen bases in 53 attempts during 11 games. Why they waited until the 27th inning of the series to try Jeroloman's arm is a mystery.

UF reliever Stephen Porter began the ninth by striking Josh Stinson, but then allowed a double by Dalton. Jeroloman erased Dalton by firing a strike to third base.

"They had a lot of stolen bases, I was surprised that they picked that time," Jeroloman said. "One out, man on second base. The next hitter got a base hit. They are a great ballteam and they played good today."

Porter has struggled against right-handed batters, prompting McMahon to consider a pitching change.

"Porter's a great pitcher," Jeroloman said. "He's a guy that we can rely on to face a hitter at any time. Coach Mac went out there and asked him 'What do you think I'm going to do?' and he goes 'I want the damn ball.' Coach gave it to him and he did the job."

Porter recorded the third out in less-than-routine fashion. A&M pinch hitter Craig Stinson singled, but was caught stealing by Porter after wandering off of first base. Porter threw to Pride at first base, who threw to shortstop Adam Davis. Stinson was tagged out of Davis to end the inning.

"Stephen Porter is working hard to stretch his outings, not just to go left-on-left, with some tilt on his breaking ball," McMahon said. "I thought he controlled the running game very well."

What will it take for the Gators to regain their offensive swagger?

Many would assume that All-American Matt Laporta could provide the magic missing in the UF lineup, by McMahon wasn't confident in such a solution.

"I'm a not a believer in magic," McMahon said. "I'm a believer in hard work. I'm a believer in doing the right things, and our guys are."

LaPorta missed his seventh-straight game and remains day-to-day with an oblique strain.

"You've got to dwell on what you have at this moment," McMahon said. "We'll try to battle ourselves through that. It's frustrating and our guys hurt. But by the same token, they've got great character and will push through. The key very much is to work yourself through that process."

It is unlikely that LaPorta will play until the upcoming weekend series against the Harvard Crimson.

"One player's return can be very much of an asset to a club, but we have to play with what we have," McMahon said.

The Gators will meet Aoyama Gakuin from Japan in an exhibition game Monday night at 6:30 p.m.

"Japan is a very talented baseball team," Jeroloman said. "Me and Adam Davis and Matt LaPorta had the opportunity to play against them when we were over there. They beat us three out of four games when we were over there. We're looking forward to facing them."

It is doubtful that Jeroloman and Davis will play in the game, McMahon hinted.

"(Monday) night is going to be a really neat experience," McMahon said. "It's an international game. All of our fans will get to see a different type of baseball. We're going to let some guys have an opportunity to play. Some guys that are playing now won't play. It will be an opportunity for those guys to see good pitching and some quality pitching and see if they want to win a job. Right now we have some jobs on our field that are open right now. We have some positions on our field that are open right now, so 'Who wants to step forward?' so to speak."

UF will host UNC-Greensboro on Tuesday and Wednesday at McKethan Stadium before welcoming defending Ivy League champion Harvard to town next weekend.

QUOTES:

JEROLOMAN: We learn from our mistakes, we've got a great bunch of guys.

MCMAHON: We talked about some things that are within the team structure. We have to continue to battle, we have to continue to work hard, we have to continue to direct the questions at ourselves about how it takes individuals, as part of a team, to step forward. And we do have some quality individuals and (they) will (step forward). We've got to keep working.

Kris Gawriluk injured his ankle on a pitch, so we made a move to the bullpen. I was really pleased with Tommy Wynn. He really battled through some jams. I thought we defended really well and got some key double plays. That was very positive.

Tommy's a guy --- we're looking for guys with roles to step forward, and he definitely did. J.K. threw the ball really well today. He pitched with confidence, he threw the ball in the strike zone, he repeated his fastball and threw some quality breaking balls. That's a really positive sign.

We pitched out of some jams.

I think they stranded nine runners. I thought that was a step forward for our ballclub.

When you look at the series, what a quality baseball series. I don't like us to be on the short end of it. What a heck of a series, from a manager's standpoint, strategically, a lot of things occurred. We pitched better, we pitched through some adversity, and that's good.

I believe that when you're not as successful as you want, I believe you have to get back at it more.

I thought we made some quality plays to keep the game close. They score on a hit-by-pitch.

From both ball clubs, I thought we saw some quality pitching all weekend.

When you fall down, are you willing you pick yourself back up? That remains to the eye of the competitor, and I believe in our guys very strongly.

Guys are having a wonderful opportunity to gauge themselves and use that as a measuring stick as we journey through the season; particularly, the SEC and our tough non-conference schedule.

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