Florida routs Mississippi State to advance at SEC tourney

Noah Ram
Special to The Sun
Florida pitcher Hunter Barco limited Mississippi State to four hits Wednesday, as the Gators rolled to a 13-1 win in seven innings at the SEC Baseball Tournament in the Hoover Met in Hoover, Alabama.

HOOVER, Ala. — Not many knew what to expect when Florida took the field against third seed Mississippi State on Wednesday morning in the second round of the SEC Baseball Tournament.

The sixth-seeded Gators squeaked past 11th-seeded Kentucky 4-1 Tuesday to face the third-seeded Bulldogs for the first time in 2021.

What the fans at Hoover Met. Stadium and the ones watching at home witnessed was an ambush, as UF demolished MSU 13-1 in a seven-inning run-rule game to advance to the third round.

The Gators (37-19), ranked No. 13 in the nation, will play 10 seed Alabama (31-22) at 5:30 p.m. ET Thursday. The Crimson Tide defeated two seed Tennessee 3-2 in 11 innings later Wednesday.

The Bulldogs (40-14) handed the ball to relief pitcher Brandon Smith (4-3), and almost immediately, found himself in some trouble. The Gators loaded the bases with no outs, but only managed one run on a wild pitch which scored left fielder Jacob Young, who had opened the game with a double.

Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan stayed with his rotation, going with big lefty Hunter Barco, who attempted to recover from his loss to Arkansas over the weekend, his first in nearly two months.

Barco (10-2) allowed a run in the bottom of the first after a double and two-out single, but mowed down Mississippi State the rest of the way. He relinquished just two more hits the next six innings, both singles.

“My mentality was just to pound the zone,” Barco said. “In the first inning, they did a really good job of hitting. I could tell what they wanted to hit it the other way, so I tried to bust them in.”

Offensively, O’Sullivan made a crucial lineup change, moving Nathan Hickey to third and putting Kris Armstrong at DH. The move paid dividends, as Armstrong batted 3-4 with four RBI, two apiece in the second and third.

“Not having Kris in the lineup yesterday, I felt like there was a huge hole in the middle,” O’Sullivan said. “With Mac (Guscette) coming back to catch, we were able to move Hickey to third and make it work.”

Florida tallied eight runs combined in the second and third frames before it whacked in four in the top of the seventh, putting the nail in the coffin. Thompson's double highlighted the seventh.

Besides Armstrong, Young drove in three runs on a 2-for-4 outing and Sterlin Thompson also drove in three with two hits, including his fifth home run of the season.

"I think it was probably our most-complete game that we played in a while, obviously," O'Sullivan said. "We got production from everybody up and down the lineup. I thought we played pretty good defense for the most part. Hunter Barco was outstanding against a really good lineup.

"We kind of got on a roll early, and some guys were feeling really good about their swings. I'm just really pleased with how we played the last two days because obviously, it could have went one of two directions after the weekend at Arkansas." 

Mississippi State, which is ranked No. 8 nationally, falls to the losers' bracket for a 10:30 a.m. ET game Thursday against Tennessee (42-15).

Note: Franco Alemán (1-4) is expected to start on mound for UF vs. Bama. ... Hickey started at third base in place of slumping Kirby McMullen (4-for-29, .138).

Thursday

What: Third round of SEC Baseball Tournament

Who: Florida (37-19) vs. Alabama (31-22)

When: 5:30 p.m. ET

Where: Hoover Metropolitan Stadium

TV: SEC Network

Radio: AM-850, 98.1-FM