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The Gators celebrate after their season-high fifth straight win on Saturday.

Saturday April 13, 2013Movin' On Up: Recent Surge has Gators Back in Hunt

The Gators celebrate after their season-high fifth straight win on Saturday.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As soon as home plate umpire Paul Guillie signaled strike three early Saturday evening, the Gators rushed toward the mound with a little more pep in their step than usual.

Eric Hanhold, Florida's sixth pitcher of the game, struck out South Carolina's TJ Costen looking for the final out in the Gators' 14-5 win.

Hanhold's teammates swarmed around the mound as they high-fived each other and then formed the traditional celebration line to congratulate the players coming off the field.

The Gators had good reason to pump their fists and leave McKethan Stadium in a cheerful mood Saturday, perhaps more so than after any game this season.

"We've had a lot of downs,'' senior Vickash Ramjit said. "This is definitely a big step forward for our team."

Florida's victory not only capped a three-game sweep over the Gamecocks, winners of two of the last three College World Series, but the win moved the Gators (19-18) above .500 for the first time since they were 3-2 on Feb. 20.

The way they did it Saturday made their season-high fifth consecutive win even more memorable.

The Gators erupted for 10 runs in the sixth inning, turning a 4-4 nail-biter into an extra batting practice session that seemed like it might last until Sunday morning. The first 10 Gators to step to the plate in the inning reached base. Ramjit led off with a double and added another double later in the inning.

South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook made enough trips to the mound during the outburst that he could probably use a pair of new cleats for the next game. Despite Holbrook making three pitching changes, the Gators kept swinging away and the ball kept dropping for hits.

"It was crazy,'' said Justin Shafer, who had two hits and pitched three innings Saturday. "It was basically base hit after base hit. It was fun to watch."

The 10-run inning was Florida's most runs in an inning in eight years and was rewarded with a standing ovation from what was left of the announced crowd of 4,374 on a gorgeous afternoon to spend at the ballpark.

It was the highlight of what turned into a feel-good weekend for the Gators.

"Nobody wanted to be that out,'' Ramjit said.

This is a Gators team that at times this season has had trouble scoring 10 runs in a week. Guys like Mike Zunino and Preston Tucker are gone and they took their bats with them. But even they were never part of a 10-run inning at UF.

Suddenly, Florida is the hottest team in the SEC other than the two division leaders, LSU and Vanderbilt.

SEC-East leading Vanderbilt won its 13 consecutive game Saturday and SEC-West leader LSU entered Saturday's game against Arkansas with a 15-game win streak.

With the victory over South Carolina, the Gators moved into a second-place tie in the East with the Gamecocks, both 8-7 in league play, a half-game ahead of fourth-place Kentucky (7-7).

The bloopers that were caught early in the season are dropping. The pitching rotation is starting to take shape and the gloves have tightened up. Those wide-eyed freshmen are starting to feel like they belong and playing more like they did when Gators coach Kevin O'Sullivan recruited them.

O'Sullivan continues to search for the most productive lineup and the ideal bullpen roles, but the buttons he has pushed lately seem to be working.

Take freshman shortstop Richie Martin playing in center field to help protect the finger he broke earlier this season. Martin remains the shortstop of the future, but since he moved to the outfield, the Gators are 5-0.

Whatever it takes. O'Sullivan's main message following Saturday's win was simple: "just keep playing."

Finally getting their head above .500 is a feather in those special caps they wore Saturday, but the Gators remain an unfinished product and there's more work to do if they want to get back to the NCAA postseason.

"I think we're starting to grow up,'' O'Sullivan said. "It certainly showed this week."

Prior to sweeping the Gamecocks, the Gators won at Mississippi State on Sunday and at Florida State on Tuesday.

Five wins in a row is a good start. As recently as March 29 the Gators were five games under .500 (11-16) after a loss to Ole Miss. Since then they have won eight of 10.

They have opened eyes along the way. Including their own.

"After this weekend, it feels all our work in paying off and everything is starting to turn for the better," Ramjit said.

In the dugout afterward, Ramjit said his teammates were already talking about Tuesday's game at Florida Gulf Coast instead of getting carried away over a three-game sweep of South Carolina.

"That's a good sign,'' he said.

FGCU swept the Gators earlier this season, so the Eagles have Florida's attention and it has nothing to do with Dunk City.

"Hopefully we'll keep getting better,'' Shafer said. "We still have things we can improve on."

O'Sullivan mentioned a couple Saturday: fewer walks and fewer runners on base.

The Gators got out of jams all weekend, stranding 32 Gamecocks, including 13 on Saturday.

"You can't be talking about that every weekend," O'Sullivan said. "You'll be gray or bald."

O'Sullivan prefers his hair the way it is. He also prefers the way the Gators are playing now compared to a few weeks ago.

He would like to see them keep it up ... just keep playing.


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