Zunino powers UF with two homers

Published: Friday, March 9, 2012 at 9:21 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 9, 2012 at 9:21 p.m.

The eighth inning of Friday night’s game between top-ranked Florida and visiting Florida Gulf Coast was a microcosm of why Gator junior All-America catcher Mike Zunino is considered one of the front-runners for national player of the year.

Zunino threw a perfect strike to throw out FGCU baserunner Brandon Bednar, who represented the potential go-ahead run and was attempting to steal second, in the top of the inning, then stepped to the plate in the bottom half and sent a two-strike pitch from Eagles reliever Brady Anderson deep over the fence in left-center for the game-winning two-run home run, enabling UF to come away with a hard-fought 4-2 win.

The win, before a McKethan Stadium crowd of 3,001, was the 11th in a row for the Gators (13-1), while FGCU slipped to 6-6 with the tough loss.

Zunino, who had his 15-game hitting streak halted in Wednesday’s 15-2 win over Florida A&M, had belted a two-run homer in his previous at-bat in the sixth to erase a 2-0 Eagles’ lead.

His game-winner, a no-doubter that was his team-leading seventh homer, followed a clutch two-out single down the right-field line from senior Preston Tucker that was Tucker’s 276th career hit, tying him for the No. 3 all-time spot with former great David Eckstein.

“I was just up there trying to battle with two strikes, that’s all I was trying to do,” Zunino said. “He’s (Tucker) a great hitter in front of me, and I know he’s going to battle. He did a great job of fighting in the count and getting a ball he could handle to rattle in the corner. I just got to two strikes and tried to barrel a ball up, and I was lucky to get a slider a little bit up.”

UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan noted such heroics have become almost commonplace for Zunino, who came into the game hitting a lofty .435 with an .870 slugging percentage.

“He’s a player who has the ability to rise to the occasion,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s the player that he is because of situations like that. I’m just awfully happy for him. He had a great night obviously.”

The game was scoreless until FGCU catcher Andrew Valencia drilled a two-run, two-out home run in the top of the fourth inning, his first of the year, to give the Eagles a 2-0 lead.

Sophomore starter Ricky Knapp of the Eagles, who matched Hudson Randall, UF’s ace, pitch for pitch, made the lead stand up until the bottom of the sixth when the Gators finally got to him. Senior left fielder Daniel Pigott led off the inning with a sharp single, and one out later, Zunino ripped his sixth homer of the year over the fence in left center to knot the score at 2-all.

Randall allowed six hits and had six strikeouts before giving way to lefty Steven Rodriguez (3-0), who threw just three pitches in relief to pick up the win.

Junior closer Austin Maddox pitched the ninth and picked up his team-leading fourth save, facing four batters and striking out the side to end the game.

Anderson (1-1) took the loss for FGCU.

Each team had seven hits. Tucker and Zunino each went 2-for-4 to pace UF, while Valencia was the lone Eagle with two hits.

“Unfortunately someone had to lose tonight,” O’Sullivan said. “I thought it was an outstanding ballgame from both sides. I thought both starting pitchers were outstanding. There was only one walk between both teams and one error, and both teams threw strikes. Sometimes in a game like this, it comes down to a pitch here or a play there.”

The two teams will square off in game two of the three-game series today at 4 p.m.

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