GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Kevin O’Sullivan has the kind of problem every coach and manager who has ever stepped foot in a dugout relishes.
He’s not just got a versatile roster loaded with talented players from top to bottom – a lot of skippers have had those over the years and failed to prosper – but it seems no matter whom he pencils into the lineup, they produce.
It so happens that for O’Sullivan, his Gators are producing in large quantities at the perfect time.
“This time of year it’s all about momentum,’’ O’Sullivan said after Florida’s 11-1 win over Mississippi State on Friday afternoon. “How you handle momentum, how you gain momentum and hang onto it.’’
Five days after an 11-4 win over Miami clinched the Gainesville Regional, the Gators returned to McKethan Stadium on Friday looking to get off to a good start against Mississippi State in the Super Regional.
Both teams took the field two wins away from a berth in the College World Series. The Gators, like they have since the NCAA Tournament started, came out swinging against Bulldogs starter Evan Mitchell.
Florida’s first four batters of the game reached base and scored, two coming home on Mike Zunino’s single and two more on Tyler Thompson’s double. Florida didn’t stop there, adding a pair of runs in the second on Nolan Fontana’s two-run homer, another one in the third on Zunino’s solo shot, two more in the fourth and one in the fifth.
Thompson capped another Gators’ offensive outburst – Florida has now outscored its opponents 34-1 in the first three innings of four NCAA Tournament games – with a solo home run in the seventh.
It was another all-around effort from the Gators, who have won six consecutive games, nine of 10 overall, and have outscored opponents 87-26 over that stretch.
You want pitching?
Starter Hudson Randall delivered on Friday against a Mississippi State team that treated him rudely in his only start against them in the regular season on April 8. Randall didn’t make it out of the third inning, giving up nine hits and six runs in his first loss of the season.
He was in control from the start on Friday, limiting the Bulldogs to six hits and one run over eight sharp innings. Randall threw 115 pitches – the most for a UF pitcher all season – striking out a season-high eight and walking two.
Despite a 7-0 lead after three innings, Randall kept his foot on the pedal for his 10th win.
“He pitched like it was a one-run game,’’ O’Sullivan said. “He didn’t really give a whole lot. He kept his intensity and focus.’’
Randall got ahead of hitters in the count and stayed ahead until the end, retiring the final nine batters he faced before turning the game over to freshman Keenan Kish to finish.
“They tattooed me over in Starkville and I missed pitching against them in the SEC Tournament, so I was really excited to come back out and give it another go,’’ Randall said.
You want hitting?
Florida hit three home runs and pounded 11 hits, scoring 11 or more runs for the third time in four NCAA Tournament games.
Center fielder Bryson Smith led the way with three hits, marking the sixth consecutive game Smith has had two or more hits.
“I just think we’re trying to grind out at-bats and trying to see a lot of pitches,’’ Zunino said.
You want defense?
Zunino threw out Bulldogs lead-off hitter C.T. Bradford trying to steal and the Gators didn’t commit an error for the third consecutive game.
You want production from top to bottom in the lineup?
Every Gator in the starting lineup had at least one hit except for right fielder Preston Tucker, who walked twice and scored a run, and first baseman Vickash Ramjit, who has been filling in for the injured Austin Maddox and Brian Johnson.
Speaking of Maddox (foot) and Johnson (concussion), has anyone noticed they have been absent other than those who read the box scores closely?
Probably not because of guys like third baseman Cody Dent, who finished the regular season batting .111 but is 8-for-24 in the postseason and solidified third base with his stellar defense.
The only reason Dent is playing is because Jeff Moyer suffered a broken finger late in the regular season at Vanderbilt. Moyer was playing because Zack Powers had knee surgery in the middle of the season.
Both Moyer and Powers are now available, but Dent is playing too well for O’Sullivan to take him out of the lineup. Dent walked twice, singled, added an RBI sacrifice fly and scored two runs on Friday.
The feeling in the dugout is that whoever O’Sullivan pencils into the lineup or sends to the mound can get the job done.
“We’re real confident,’’ Fontana said. “There are a lot of guys who have stepped up this postseason and that’s been a huge key for us and they are going to have to keep doing their job.’’
If they do, Fontana said he thinks “we’ll be alright.’’
I’m not going to argue with Fontana’s assessment.
As soon as Friday’s Game 1 ended, O’Sullivan gathered the players and reminded them of Game 2 on Saturday.
If Florida wins, it will clinch the first back-to-back trips to the CWS in program history.
“It might have been one of our better offensive days in a while,’’ O’Sullivan said. “We can’t carry any of these runs into [Game 2]. The job is not done.’’
How deep is O’Sullivan’s roster?
Asked who will start Game 2, O’Sullivan said it will be freshman Karsten Whitson. He hopes to finally have Johnson back on Saturday, but not on the mound.
Whitson has done fine for a freshman. He’ll step on the rubber in Game 2 with an 8-0 record and 2.42 ERA.
It must be nice to be O’Sullivan these days.