GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The hits fell like raindrops. Like those fat and wet kind that soak everything during one of those famous afternoon thunderstorms in Florida.
Nolan Fontana started it off with a single. Bryson Smith was hit by a pitch. Preston Tucker singled to score Fontana. Mike Zunino singled to score Smith. On and on it went for the Gators in their NCAA Tournament opener Friday afternoon against Manhattan College.
Jaspers coach Kevin Leighton kept waiting for some of those balls to find his outfielders’ gloves. They instead kept finding green grass.
“It just seemed like every time they swung they got a hit,’’ Leighton said. “It was like a flood and we just didn’t have enough sandbags to stop it.”
Florida sent 30 batters to the plate in the first three innings, 26 of them against poor Jaspers starter John Soldinger.
You want to know what kind of day it was for Soldinger? Here’s all you need to know: He had a 2.34 ERA when he threw his first pitch. By the time the third inning was over, Soldinger’s ERA had grown faster than a weed in the rain, skyrocketing to 3.57 with only 61 pitches.
The Gators scored five runs in the first, four in the second and seven in the third. Tucker, Zunino and Daniel Pigott each had three hits in the first three innings. Before grounding out to end the third, Tucker was 3-for-3 with two home runs and five RBIs, smacking two-run homers in the second and third following his RBI single in the first.
Tucker said talking to Zunino about his approach at the plate earlier in the week made a difference in his own performance. Zunino apparently used the same advice he gave Tucker.
He followed Tucker’s homer in the second with a solo shot, the second time this season the Gators have gone deep back-to-back. Leighton finally pulled Soldinger after the first seven batters in the third reached, his effort to save the bullpen as long as he could finally giving way to preventing any more damage to Soldinger’s psyche.
Soldinger’s final line: two innings, 16 hits, 16 runs, 15 earned, two walks, one strikeout and two hit batters.
“I really wasn’t expecting that type of support early on,’’ Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “I was hoping we would get a lead.’’
The Gators finished with 23 hits, a school record for an NCAA Tournament game. Tyler Thompson and Pigott each had four hits, and Tucker and Zunino added three apiece.
“When you see other guys succeeding in front of you, it gives you a lot of confidence,’’ Tucker said. “I got pitches to hit today and took advantage of them. He was struggling to those his off-speed for strikes, so we knew we were going to get fastballs.’’
Florida’s 17-3 victory followed Miami’s 7-2 win over Jacksonville in the opening game of the Gainesville Regional, setting up another postseason meeting between the Gators and Hurricanes for the third consecutive season.
Florida knocked Miami out of the regional in 2009 and in the super regional a year ago, turning the tide in a rivalry once dominated in the postseason by Miami. Prior to the last two years, Miami held a 10-3 advantage in the NCAA Tournament against the Gators.
However, counting the regular season the past two years, Florida has won nine of 10 overall against Miami.
Hurricanes coach Jim Morris called Saturday’s game the most important of the season considering how it sets up the rest of the weekend. The winner will have an opportunity to wrap up the region title on Sunday. The loser must play an early game on Sunday to stave off elimination, and then win again in a second game Sunday to set up a championship game on Monday night.
Both teams want to take the path of least resistance, meaning win Saturday.
“It’s a huge rivalry. We know what we’re going to get with Miami,” Tucker said. “They know how to compete. They are a very confident team, too. I’m looking forward to it and I know everyone else is.’’
O’Sullivan will send Hudson Randall to the mound, his Friday night starter for most of the regular season. He tossed freshman Karsten Whitson at Manhattan, causing O’Sullivan a brief moment of extra concern that was quickly erased once the Gators came to the plate.
“You always have a little apprehension when you throw out a freshman for his first time in a regional,’’ O’Sullivan said.
Not only did Whitson hit the lottery in terms of run support, he passed his first postseason test. Whitson threw 47 pitches in 3 1/3 innings – he gave up two hits and struck out three – before O’Sullivan pulled him to save his arm for a potential appearance later in the regional if Whitson’s arm is up to it.
The only blemish on Florida’s impressive win was first baseman Austin Maddox leaving the game in the third inning with an ankle injury he suffered chasing a foul ball. Maddox’s status for Saturday’s game is uncertain, but he did walk off under his own power Friday.
The Gators still have a long road to travel to Omaha and the College World Series. If they make it there, they’ll look back at Friday’s win and remember what a blast they had to start out the trip.
“I was really proud of the way we played,’’ O’Sullivan said. “You hope you get off to a good start, especially offensively in the first couple of innings.’’