GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – They are called no-doubters. Those long towering home runs that everybody in the ballpark knows is gone as soon as bat meets ball.
Gators outfielder Preston Tucker hit one in Florida’s 11-4 win over Miami on Sunday in the championship game of the Gainesville Regional.
Hurricanes starter E.J. Encinosa threw a first-pitch fastball, and Tucker drilled it high over the right-field fence onto Stadium Road.
A no-doubter and record-breaker all in one swing.
Tucker’s blast tied him with former Gator Mario Linares (1988-91) for most career home runs in the NCAA Tournament by a UF player. He later broke Linares’ school record for most career RBIs (25) in the tournament. Tucker now has 26 and could have plenty of opportunities to add to that total if the Gators keep playing the way they did in the Gainesville Regional.
Tucker’s three-run blast on Sunday had more implications than an early lead for the Gators. Nine pitches into the game there seemed little doubt that the Gators would knock Miami out of the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season.
Encinosa temporarily regained his footing in the second inning, but the Gators continued to take batting practice against Encinosa and later Hurricanes reliever Javi Salas, putting the game out of reach with an eight-run third inning.
“It was a great day all the way around,’’ said Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan, whose team advanced to a school-record third consecutive Super Regional.
The Hurricanes had a different view, wishing they had never seen Tucker come to the plate -- or maybe not pitched to him when he did.
“You never want to be trailing that much that early,’’ Miami’s Zeke DeVoss said. “It just seems that the dugout and the whole atmosphere changes.’’
Tucker inflicted more damage in the third by smacking a line-drive double off the wall in the right-field corner for his second five-RBI game in three days.
Tucker boosted his season totals to 13 home runs and a team-high 65 RBIs in Florida’s wins over Manhattan on Friday and Miami on Saturday and Sunday. The Gators now host Mississippi State – winner of the Atlanta Regional – in the best-two-of-three Gainesville Super Regional next weekend at McKethan Stadium.
When he stepped into the batter’s box his third time up Sunday, Tucker expected Salas to try and jam him with a fastball since Tucker was crowding the plate. Well, Salas tried to jam him with a fastball and Tucker turned on it, the sign of a hitter going good.
“I was trying to move the runners over and get something to pull,’’ Tucker. “It was right in the zone I was looking for. I’m seeing the ball well right now.”
The junior outfielder from Tampa earned Gainesville Regional Most Outstanding Player honors by going 7-for-14 with three home runs and 11 RBIs.
If Tucker continues to swing the bat as well as he did the past three days, the Gators are suddenly a more dangerous team than before the Regional started considering that DH/P Brian Johnson and 1B Austin Maddox are hobbled. Johnson missed the entire Regional and Maddox suffered an injured ankle in Friday’s 17-3 clubbing of Manhattan.
Thanks to Tucker, no one has really noticed.
“All I try to do is get hot at the right time,’’ Tucker said. “I tried to tone down my swing a little bit [preparing for the Regional]. Right now I think I’m swinging it as well as I can, so hopefully that will continue.’’
O’Sullivan hoped for something extra from his right fielder.
“He knew going into this weekend that without Austin and Brian in there that he needed to step up and have a good weekend, and he did that,’’ O’Sullivan said. “I’m awful proud how he handled that, accepted that role and was able to deliver.’’
When handing out compliments late Sunday, O’Sullivan had his pick.
There was starter Alex Panteliodis, who improved to 3-0 with a 1.71 ERA in his last three starts against Miami. He also followed up his victory in the SEC Tournament clincher a week earlier with another strong outing, limiting Miami to five hits and one run over a season-high 6 2/3 innings.
Afterward, Panteliodis admitted a little extra adrenaline behind his pitches when there are Hurricanes at the plate.
“I don’t know, just something sparks me against them,’’ Panteliodis said.
O’Sullivan could have pointed out the play of catcher Mike Zunino (.455, a homer, three RBIs in the Regional), or All-Regional selections Nolan Fontana, Tyler Thompson and Daniel Pigott.
Everyone seemed to contribute something to Florida’s roll through the Regional as the Gators outscored the opposition 33-11 over three hot-and-humid days.
The only thing hotter may have been Tucker.
The Gators are not just playing well when they need to most -- they have taken control of the Miami rivalry like never before. The Gators have now beaten the Hurricanes eight consecutive times overall and six straight in the postseason.
“I hope it flip-flops again very soon,’’ Miami coach Jim Morris said. “They are getting even right now.’’
There have been several stars along the way to Florida’s 48 wins this season – third-most in school history – but none shining as bright as Tucker of late.
He says he really isn’t doing anything differently other than producing different results. Of course, we’ve seen him do this before. He had a career-high 85 RBIs as a sophomore.
“He’s an outstanding player, goodness gracious,’’ Morris said. “He always plays good against us. He can really hit. He has hit it hard against us his entire career.’’
As for all those records and accolades he earned over the weekend, he’ll talk more about those later.
“Right now, it’s all about winning games,’’ he said. “I know it’s going to mean something some day.’’