With the score tied at a run apiece Sunday, Nathan Hickey’s eighth-inning blast ricocheted off the McKethan Stadium’s scoreboard, thus eliminating any notion the No. 1 Gators wouldn’t remain the nation’s lone unbeaten program.
After peppering USF for 24 runs combined in the first two games of the series, the Gators (16-0) needed Hickey’s late home run to secure a 2-1 result and complete the sweep of the Bulls.
“I was just looking for something over the plate, just try to get a barrel on it,” Hickey said. “Luckily he threw a fastball and that’s what I was hitting, so I just put a good swing on a good pitch.”
The teams were on track for no-hit bids early, with UF freshman left-handed starter Hunter Barco leading the way. Admittedly the Jacksonville native did look slightly shaky early, and he would need 36 pitches through the first two innings, but his response on the mound would elicit praise from UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan.
“I thought Barco pitched like a veteran today. Looked like he was in cruise control. His fastball coming out was a little off there in the first couple hitters, but then he really settled in,” O’Sullivan said. “His slider was outstanding, he mixed in his change-up today. I thought his pace was really good.”
Bulls (5-10) starter Carson Ragsdale’s no-hit bid was broken up in the fourth inning by Jacob Young, who extended his hitting streak to 17 games. After Hickey singled to left-field for his first hit of the day, Young would score Florida’s lone run of the inning on a wild pitch, but the Gators wouldn’t extend the lead, stranding two runners.
“Just taking it one day at a time,” Young said of his hot streak at the plate. “Hopefully the winning streak goes longer than that.”
Barco’s shot at a no-hitter would be broken up two innings later when Nick Gonzalez singled. A sacrifice bunt would send Gonzalez to second base, and he would tie the game on JD Dutka’s double down the third-base line. USF had a chance to take its first lead of the weekend a batter later, but Jud Fabian’s diving grab would prevent another run from coming across.
“We know Jud’s going to cover a lot of ground, and (Austin Langworthy’s) been out there for, I think, 12 years now, so he should be fine,” Young said. “So I think we cover a lot of ground out there.”
Having struck out seven Bulls after 78 pitches, Barco would make way for Christian Scott after six innings with the score still at a run apiece. Scott would throw two hitless innings before making way for Ben Specht to record the save.
“Obviously, what can you say about those guys that have developed as sophomores? Christian Scott comes in and does a really nice job for a couple innings and Ben Specht comes in and closes it out. So, these games are good. Good to be in tight ball-games like this, and we need to learn how to win different ways,” O’Sullivan said. “I can’t say enough about Ben, and Christian, and Nick Pogue and David Luethje from where they developed 12 months ago to where they are now. A lot of our team’s success has a lot to do with those four guys.”
Looking to continue adding to the best start in program history, the Gators stay at McKethan Stadium for a 6:30 p.m. Tuesday match-up with No. 11 Florida State (10-5).
“I really like the way our starters are throwing the ball. We’re not walking a lot of guys. We’re throwing the ball across the plate, we’re playing good defense and we’ve had a chance to play a lot of different people the first 16 games,” O’Sullivan said. “I think it was big today to get a good start from Hunter so now we can start Nick Pogue on Tuesday. Gives us an older guy that, obviously, has got some big innings for us.
“A lot of things to still work on, but we’ve been playing pretty clean baseball for the most part.”