No. 1 Florida rolls USF, 9-1

Florida starting pitcher Tommy Mace. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

Friday night’s 9-1 Florida win over South Florida epitomized the reason Florida is off to this ridiculous start to the season.

The No. 1-ranked Gators won their 14th straight game because this team feels comfortable.

Take starter Tommy Mace, for example.

“I’m feeling good,” he said after running his record to 3-0. “I feel like I’ve learned some things on the mound and in the bullpens. I’m excited about conference play.”

You take that experience and add in a talented group of freshmen, such as catcher Nathan Hickey.

“I feel comfortable at the plate,” Hickey said after a three-hit game that included a monstrous homer to center field. “I’m staying within myself. When I first got here, I was trying to make myself known. Now, I know who I am. 

“At the beginning, I was trying to hit the ball 950 feet. My body was moving all over the place.”

In his last two games at McKethan Stadium, Hickey has hit a pair of homers that might have gone 950 feet combined. His solo shot to center capped a six-run first for the Gators.

“You don’t see too many home runs to center field where the centerfielder doesn’t move,” said Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan.

Hickey now is 4-for-6 in his last two games with the two homers. And while he has become more comfortable with his surroundings (including Relish hamburgers on Tuesdays), there is a comfort level that the older players have provided that has allowed this freshman class to prosper early.

Whether it’s Josh Rivera being the everyday shortstop and showing off his cannon arm or Brendan Sproat coming out of the bullpen, Florida’s early-season success has been built on camaraderie as much as talent.

“The younger guys have mixed in with the older guys really well,” said Mace. “The leaders have to help these guys evolve. I think that’s the key to our success now.

“We have to bring those guys along to help them compete in the SEC.”

It doesn’t hurt that Mace has turned into the Friday night starter that Florida hoped he would be. Against USF, he lowered his ERA to 1.33 in four starts.

“I was really happy with my breaking ball,” Mace said. “A couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t land it. So I’m excited it worked tonight. I’m getting more comfortable with it.”

Mace was brilliant against a struggling USF team (5-8) that came into the game hitting .198. He threw 90 pitches over seven innings and only allowed two hits. Mace walked two and struck out six.

“It’s fun to watch when pitchers attack the strike zone and get the ball and go,” O’Sullivan said.

Of course, it didn’t hurt his cause to go out for the second inning with a 6-0 lead.

The Gators jumped on USF starter Collin Sullivan (1-2), who didn’t help matters by walking the first two batters he faced. 

Still, he was one pitch away from getting out of the inning. But with two outs, sophomore Jacob Young extended his hitting streak to 15 games when he laced a first-pitch single to right to score a pair of runs and make it 2-0.

After a walk to Cory Acton, Kendrick Calilao launched a no-doubter to left field, his first homer of the season, to make it 5-0.

After Hickey’s homer made it 6-0, perhaps the Gators got too comfortable.

They put up five straight scoreless innings despite getting runs on in each inning.

“We lost our focus,” O’Sullivan said. “We had some bad at-bats against pitching we should have had better at-bats against.

“We don’t have this thing figured out. It’s a nine-inning game. Our at-bats after the first inning were not very good.”

Still, the Gators are now 14-0 as they extended their school record streak to start the season. 

Florida put the game away with a three-run seventh that included the third hit of the game from Calilao and a sacrifice fly from Hickey. 

Sproat pitched a scoreless eighth, but allowed USF to avoid the shutout when he gave up a long homer to left by pinch-hitter Dillon Besnier in the ninth.

The teams will play again Saturday at 4 p.m.