Special to Gatorsports.com
STARKVILLE, Miss. — On a night when No. 1 Florida still clinched an outright SEC regular-season baseball title, the Gators had their string of 15 straight SEC series wins come to an end Friday night at Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs jumped on Florida freshman righty starter Jack Leftwich early and didn’t let up in a 12-4 win over the Gators at Dudy Noble Field.
Florida (41-14, 20-9 SEC) suffered its third straight loss and its first series loss against an SEC opponent since losing two of three at home to Tennessee from April 7-9, 2017.
Leftwich was a last-minute replacement for Florida junior righty ace Brady Singer, who was scratched from his start for precautionary reasons after feeling a twinge in his hamstring while warming up. Senior catcher and team captain JJ Schwarz also left the game in the seventh inning after taking a foul ball off his right hand. Schwarz wasn’t wearing a brace on his hand when he left the field on Friday, but there was no immediate word on the severity of the injury.
“Unfortunately he got hit on a foul tip behind the plate,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said of Schwarz. “He was going to come out the next inning anyways. It looks like a bruise, so we probably dodged a bullet there.”
Despite the loss, Florida clinched the outright SEC title when Georgia beat Arkansas 8-7 in 10 innings earlier Friday evening. Entering the final series of the season, the Gators needed just one win or one Arkansas loss to take the title outright.
“At the end of the game, basically what I told the team is this: we’ve won 19-straight series,” O’Sullivan said. “We won the SEC outright today. We can’t let one series affect how we play. We’ve just gotten beat.
“We’ve got to stick together, no finger pointing or any of those types of things. We just got beat. We’ve been extremely successful here for a long time. We’ve got to keep our heads together and go out and play a clean game tomorrow.”
Mississippi State (30-24, 14-15 SEC) rallied against Leftwich early, jumping ahead 2-0 on a two-RBI single by Hunter Stovall that went off Leftwich’s glove and into right field. The Gators rallied to tie the score 2-2 on a sac fly by sophomore left fielder Austin Langworthy and and an RBI double from junior second baseman Blake Reese.
But Mississippi State answered in the second inning, scoring two more runs with two outs to go up 4-2. Jake Magnum put Mississippi State up 3-2 on an RBI double that wasn’t cleanly fielded by right fielder Wil Dalton, which allowed the run to score from first base on the play. Magnum then scored from second base on an error when UF first baseman Brady Smith dropped a throw from Reese and let the ball trickle away from him into foul territory.
It didn’t get any better for Leftwich in the third inning. Shortstop Luke Alexander added a two-RBI single to put the Bulldogs up 6-2. Leftwich (4-4) took the loss, allowing six runs (five earned) on eight hits in three innings, with no walks and seven strikeouts.
“The thing with Jack, if he can figure it out, to finish hitters and locate his pitches down in the zone a little bit better,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s been making mistakes with two strikes. He just needs to finish innings, and that’s been a recurring thing for him going back to the fall. But if he can learn to finish hitters and finish innings I think he’s going to take a huge jump forward. It’s not his stuff; his stuff was really good tonight.”
Langworthy cut Mississippi’s State lead to 6-3 in the top of the fourth inning with his second homer in as many days and his second homer of the season.
But Mississippi State tagged UF sophomore lefty reliever Andrew Baker for six runs over the next two innings to put the game out of reach. A three-run homer by Tanner Allen off Baker in the fifth inning put the Bulldogs up 12-3.
“My job is to know our personnel going into the postseason,” O’Sullivan said. “I think after this weekend and after the SEC Tournament, a couple of these guys will get some more opportunities, I’ll have a really good feel for who can do what at this time of year when everything gets dialed up a little bit more.
“There are some positives to take away, obviously disappointed with the outcome today, but we’ll come out tomorrow and hopefully get another great start out of Jackson Kowar. His last two starts have probably been the best two of his career here. We’ll get him going and keep him on track, then head up to Hoover on Sunday.”
Who: Florida at Mississippi State
When: 4:30 p.m.
Radio: AM-850, 98.1-FM
Pitching matchup: UF RHP Jackson Kowar (9-2, 2.56 ERA) vs. TBA