Gators Salvage Split With 9-6 Win

Florida put up a pair of runs in the second inning and broke things open with six more in the fourth to earn a 9-6 victory and salvage a split of both the Saturday doubleheader and the weekend series at Mississippi State.

The Gators bounced back after losing 8-1 earlier in the day and evened their overall record at 25-25, though at 7-17 SEC they remain in the league cellar. The Bulldogs ended the weekend 33-16 overall, 11-12 SEC. While they failed to gain any ground in the SEC Tournament standings, by winning the weekend State did hold on to eighth place in the eight-team field.

"I'm happy we won two, but you'd like to win three," Coach Ron Polk said. "Sweeps are tough in this league."

It was State's first SEC series win since March and only the third of the season. It was also the first Bulldog series win against Florida in six seasons.

The teams were allowed to play two Saturday due to the threat of wet Sunday weather and Florida's scheduled return flight home.

With nine runs, most of them in one big bunch, and 13 hits of support Florida starter Steven Porter was able to coast an out into the sixth inning before needing relief. State only touched him for two hits and one run, with Porter (2-0) charting a strikeout and walk.

"He pitched well, we hit a lot of air-balls early and just didn't get anything going," said Polk. Indeed the Dogs kept UF centerfielder Gavin Dickey busy with a series of fly balls hit his way, all caught.

MSU's chances to come back came off the Gator bullpen. Darren O'Day aborbed eight of State's dozen hits and was charged with four runs. David Hurst, who'd worked some in game-one, had some troubles before closing the door. He loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom of the ninth and twice faced the tying runner at the plate, and did well to escape with only a final tally allowed.

State opened with righthander Aaron Weatherford, giving the freshman his second SEC start in as many weekends. He was able to last an inning longer than last Friday at South Carolina, but still took the wrong side of the decision. In 3.2 innings Weatherford (4-2) gave up eight runs, all earned, on nine Gators hits. He struck out for and walked none.

Coming with righty Weatherford and his low-90s fastball seemed a good way to throw off the Gators, who had been baffled by lefty Justin Pigott's mid-80s stuff earlier in the day. "But he doesn't have the off-speed and changeup," Polk noted. And Florida Coach Pat McMahon made changes of his own. Facing a righthanded starter the first time this weekend he adjusted the order with seven lefthanded or switch-hitters. "If I had to do it over again I'd probably pitch another lefthander," Polk said, "because I think they're a lot better lefthanded hitting."

Four bullpen Dogs ate up the remaining five-plus innings. Chad Crosswhite worked the longest, 2.1 in immediate relief with no damage on one hit and four strikeouts. Mike Valentine got the first out of the seventh but walked a pair and gave up Florida's final score. Brett Cleveland stopped that with 1.2 innings, a hit and strikeout, and former starter Josh Johnson took care of a one-hit, one-K ninth.

Weatherford sat the side his first turn; the Gators got to him in the second. A leadoff single and sacrifice bunt had Austin Pride on second base, but a base hit by Dickey was too sharp to risk sending the runner around. It was a wise choice as with runners on corners David Cash dropped a two-base hit into left-centerfield, scoring both for the 2-0 lead. Weatherford was able to leave one on the paths and go in-order his third inning.

But the fourth finished his afternoon early. Pride and Bryson Barber singled their ways on and with no outs the Gators were supposed to play the short game. Dickey did indeed square, pulling in the third baseman, only to back off and slash away. His hard grounder went right down the open third-base line and doubled the lead to 4-0.

Only then did Florida truly bunt, bumping Dickey a base closer where he was able to score on a high, slow bouncer by Chris Petrie. And the Gators didn't stop there. Matt Gaski blipped a single to bring up the top of UF's order, as well as a mound visit. With Crosswhite warming up Weatherford was touched for a bunt-single by Adam Davis, then he served up a 2-1 offering that Jeroloman sailed over the rightfield fence. "That was the dagger," Polk said. It was a three-run homer and 8-0 score as State made the pitching change. "We were hoping to get one more batter from Aaron, it didn't work out."

After five scoreless innings the Bulldogs finally got on their own board. With one out second baseman Jeffrey Rea walked, and two balls to third baseman Edward Easley brought a quick change of moundsmen with righty O'Day taking over. Easley watched two pitches before getting around on another and doubling down the third base line. Rea scored on this two-bagger, and with two down Easley did the same on DH Brian LaNinfa's double to the right-centerfield gap.

"We battled," Polk said, "O'Day gives up eight hits in two-and-a-third (innings) and I don't think that's ever happened to him." Still the pitcher was able to hold it to two runs for the moment. And his offense responded immediately, set up by consecutive Valentine walks. Barber dropped a slick bunt with no play possible to load the bags, and Dickey drove it deep to left-centerfield. Butts robbed him on the track of at least a double and maybe more, but lead runner Matt LaPorta tagged to score. Cleveland was called in to end the inning with a grounder and fly ball.

O'Day still had the 9-2 led to defend in the bottom of the ninth, and losing two runs off that cushion didn't bother his coaches. Rea singled cleanly and Easley reached on a nubber three fielders converged on with no play. Berkery worked the count full then lined a shot past the third baseman and into the corner for one score and a pair in position to do so. LaNinfa's grounder to shortstop plated Easley for a 9-4 score.

But a fifth MSU run did force the last change. With two outs centerfielder Hunter dropped a base hit into short leftfield and as Berkery scored Hunter took second on a poor throw. Lefty Hurst took over, went 2-2 with substitute rightfielder Mitch Moreland, and got him to watch a third strike.

The Bulldogs did earn a chance at extending the game in their last turn. Jones reached as his grounder ate up the Gator shortstop; Butts singled into centerfield and Rea to leftfield, filling the bases with no outs. This made Easley the tying run at the dish, but Hurst got him to pop out, and Berkery lined his first pitch to the rightfielder. It produced a sacrifice-RBI, and State's last run. Because on 2-2 LaNinfa missed to end the evening.

Gator DH Barber got his first four-hit game of his career with a sacrifice to boot, and three teammates had a pair of safeties. Jeroloman and Dickey each drove in three runs. State did have a dozen base hits and twice as many doubles, four, and the top five in the MSU order combined for seven hits with two each for Rea and Easley.

"If we had won today and others losing my gosh, we're almost thinking we have a chance to be in first this side, that's how close it is," Polk said. "But it's bunched-up and we have a lot of challenges left."

The Bulldogs have no midweek game to prepare for, so Polk said he would likely give them a couple of days off for final exams…as well as the unplanned open Sunday now that the series is over a day early. For that matter Polk isn't sure what he will do on a no-game Sunday, his first during a season in memory. Likely he and pitching coach Russ McNickle will also re-evaluate plans for the upcoming series at Kentucky. Not only are the Wildcats red hot and suddenly tied for the league lead going into Sunday, but they play in a slugger's park.

Polk is confident now in Friday starter lefty Brooks Dunn and Pigott, but said Weatherford will probably return to middle-relief duty where his hard stuff will work better in shorter stints. He said Crosswhite and Moreland are possibilities for the third slot, as is Josh Johnson, John Lalor, and a recovering Matt Lea. The freshman righty could really be useful in State's final season-series the next weekend after throwing well against Mississippi in the April 11 Mayor's Trophy Game, a week before his shoulder problem flared up.

The Bulldogs will practice late Wednesday, after final exams end, and leave for Kentucky Thursday.

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