By JM Soracchi, Correspondent
During the ninth inning, with rain threatening to drench McKethan Stadium, the vast majority of the crowd at Florida’s final baseball game of its SEC series against South Carolina walked out of the venue.
About a quarter of an hour later, Gators first baseman Jordan Butler helped his team follow the fans’ lead.
Butler launched a three-run home run over the right field fence on a 2-0 pitch to deliver Florida a 6-4 walk-off victory over the Gamecocks and, with it, just the Gators’ second SEC series win of the season.
In just his fourth start of the season, Butler was part of a lineup overhaul and made coach Kevin O’Sullivan look like a savant. Butler went 4 for 5 with two home runs – the first of his UF career – with four RBIs and two runs scored.
“During the at-bat, it’s just play baseball,” Butler said. “Nothing’s different, just hit the baseball. He went 2-0 on me, I was sitting on one pitch, he threw it right where I needed it.”
The other lineup changes involved Jacob Young moving to second, Kendrick Calilao moving to right field and Kirby McMullen getting the nod at designated hitter, in part because senior Nelson Maldonaldo dinged up his shoulder in Friday’s loss to the Gamecocks.
“I didn’t address (the changes),” O’Sullivan said. “I just told them what the lineup was, like I usually do … there really wasn’t much more to it.”
Florida (24-14, 6-9) trailed 4-2 after the top of the fifth as South Carolina rapped out three hits. The Gamecocks got leadoff singles from Noah Campbell and George Callil to give South Carolina (21-15, 4-11) two on and no out. Campbell scored on a TJ Hopkins groundout and Jacob Olson followed with an RBI single to score Callil.
The Gators clawed back a run in the bottom of the seventh on Brady McConnell’s RBI single to left field to score Young. After an intentional walk issued by the Gamecocks to Austin Langworthy, Florida had the bases loaded with two outs but a line drive by Calilao right at South Carolina shortstop Callil ended the threat.
Again in the eighth, the Gators had runners on first and second with one out but back-to-back flyouts left them still trailing.
Even in the bottom of the ninth, the game looked like a lost cause for Florida after South Carolina relief pitcher Wesley Sweatt quickly punched out the first two Gator batters. With the rain falling in full force, though, Sweatt walked Langworthy and Calilao before the Gamecocks asked the umpire to have Florida’s grounds crew pour dry dirt on the mound to help Sweatt’s ability to maintain traction during his delivery.
After a short delay, Sweatt’s first two pitches didn’t find the strike zone. His third did, but Butler was waiting on the fastball down the middle and ended the game after connecting.
While Butler benefited from a huge celebration at home plate at the conclusion of his second blast, the Gators would have never been in that position without the contributions of freshman right-handed pitcher David Luethje.
Luethje came on in the fifth inning in relief of starter Tyler Dyson and gave up no runs and two hits over the final 4.1 innings to improve his record to 1-1. Luethje faced 15 batters and struck out three while walking none to help Florida hang around.
“Let’s not lose sight of what David Luethje did,” O’Sullivan said, “coming in and throwing 4 ⅓ innings, scoreless … He commanded the ball and kept his composure in check.”
Florida doesn’t get much time to rest: the Gators are back in action at 6 p.m. Tuesday at McKethan against Jacksonville before embarking on a three-game road trip to LSU starting Thursday.
“I’m happy with the way they battled,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s a young team. We needed something like this to help us. Hopefully this is the one positive moment in our season that gets us going. Every team has those moments and hopefully this is the one.”