There is no need to panic yet. But after playing at a high level for close to two months, No. 1 Florida is in the midst of a late April hiccup.
The Gators (34-9) were unable to solve side-arming reliever Robert Broom in a 6-4 loss Tuesday to Mercer before an announced 3,133 at McKethan Stadium. UF has dropped back-to-back games for the first time since falling twice in two straight nights to UCF on March 6-7.
Florida also is 2-3 in its last five games, having lost 8-4 in a home game against Jacksonville on April 17.
“Nobody should come in here and just roll over us,” said Florida sophomore right fielder Wil Dalton, who launched his team-leading 16th homer of the season. “And two games in a row, it’s definitely a bitter a taste. This is two mid-weeks in a row we’ve lost that we shouldn’t so this is just something that we have to fix.”
Freshman righty Connor Churchill (0-1) took the loss for Florida, allowing a run on four hits in .2 innings of relief. Mercer went ahead to stay 5-4 on a squeeze bunt by shortstop R.J. Yeager in the top of the fourth inning. The Bears (29-14) added an insurance run in the eighth, going up 6-4 when first baseman Sean McDermott lined an RBI double in the left field corner off UF sophomore righty Tyler Dyson.
Shortly after the game, Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said Dyson will remain in the bullpen for UF’s SEC series beginning Thursday at home against Auburn. Freshman righty Jack Leftwich, who has allowed just one earned run in his last 19.2 innings, will make his first SEC start against Auburn on Saturday. Leftwich pitched six scoreless innings Saturday against Kentucky in relief of Dyson, who lasted just two innings.
“We just need to get (Dyson) going and get his confidence back,” O’Sullivan said.
Dyson has allowed 10 earned runs over 9.2 innings in his last three starts, waking 12 while striking out 10 during that stretch.
“We’re going to need Tyler as a starter down the stretch if we’re going to do what we want to do at the end of the year,” O’Sullivan said. “But I think right now, just getting him back out there, as much as we can, maybe twice or three times a week to get his confidence going is kind of the smartest thing for him, and once he has a couple of good outings in the row, you know, we’ll run him right back out there for the weekend.”
The Gators started freshman righty Hunter McMullen on Tuesday night. After retiring the first two batters in the first, McMullen allowed a single to right fielder Trey Truitt, then threw eight straight balls to load the bases. Designated hitter Le Bassett drew a bases loaded walk on a 3-2 pitch to put Mercer up 1-0, but McMullen worked out of the jam by striking out McDermott to end the inning.
Florida answered with four runs in the bottom of the third. A wind-aided two-run home run by Dalton put the Gators up 2-1. The Gators tacked on two more runs in the inning when Blake Reese belted an RBI single and Austin Langworthy scored on a wild pitch, putting Florida up 4-1.
But the Gators were unable to hold the early lead. Yeager led off the third inning with a wind-aided solo homer to left off McMullen, cutting UF’s lead to 4-2. McMullen left after 2.1 innings and 50 pitches and was replaced by Churchill, who fared no better. Churchill allowed hits to the first two batters he faced, a single, then a two-RBI double by Bassett that tied the score at 4.
O’Sullivan said the plan was to follow McMullen with Churchill.
“We talked before the game that we were going to use five or six different pitchers tonight and these young guys have to figure out some things,” O’Sullivan said. “All you are asking is for Hunter to go two or three innings and then have Churchill give us two innings and get us to the fourth or the fifth and then I can piece it together with the older guys in the second half of the game, we’re not asking them to do too much.”
A bright spot for Florida was the pitching of sophomore lefty Andrew Baker. After Florida went down 5-4, Baker pitched four scoreless innings, allowing no runs and no hits with strikeouts.
“He kept us in the game,” O’Sullivan said.
But Broom (8-1) was even more effective out of the pen, protecting Mercer’s lead with six scoreless innings. Broom, who came into the game with a 1.49 ERA, allowed four hits and struck out 12 over the final six innings, the most strikeouts a pitcher has recorded against UF this season.
“It was just a different angle we hadn’t seen very much this year,” Florida senior JJ Schwarz said. “The ball is coming out of a weird tunnel. We just didn’t make any adjustments. He was pitching us the same way for six innings, so, it was pretty tough.”