JJ Schwarz hunted for a fastball.
The 12th-ranked Gators trailed South Carolina 5-3 in the eighth inning Saturday afternoon’s series finale. Gamecocks reliever Colie Bowers had just walked Nelson Maldonado on four straight pitches to load the bases and bring Schwarz to the plate.
Schwarz had been slumping all year.
That wasn’t stopping him this time. Not again.
Facing a 1-0 pitch, Schwarz blasted a ball into the left-field bleachers for a grand slam to set up the Gators’ 7-5 win.
Schwarz rounded the bases with 3,604 fans cheering for him the whole way. As he touched home plate with four teammates waiting for him and the dugout emptying to give him a proper ovation, he raised his arms in the air in jubilation.
For at least one at-bat, Schwarz felt like himself again.
“It was good to see a smile on his face again,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said.
'I've been frustrated'
It has been a rough year for Schwarz.
He’ll be the first to tell you that.
Schwarz, one of Florida’s top power hitters, has been anything but the reliable hitter he expects himself to be.
His .239 season batting average heading into the game would be a career low. He had more strikeouts (37) than hits (34) as he stepped up to the plate.
“I’ve been frustrated,” Schwarz said. “My attitude hasn’t been great.”
Schwarz has high expectations for himself. Each time he steps up to the plate, he said, he needs to make a play.
The internal pressure he puts on himself seeped into his game all season.
There was the 0 for 16 stretch in the beginning of the season, a stretch where he struck out six times over five games. His batting average would eventually dip to .200 by the start of SEC play and he would move from the top of the order to sixth in the lineup.
“When I don’t come through,” he said. “I didn’t do something right.”
O’Sullivan, Florida’s 10th-year head coach, talked with Schwarz earlier in the week.
“I told him I had confidence in him,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s always hit. He’s gonna hit.
And with one swing, he showed that he can still hit.
“It’s amazing how one swing can change your mood,” O’Sullivan said. “He deserved it.”
'It was a good feeling'
Schwarz lost track of the ball.
As it sailed through McKethan Stadium, all he could do was watch as left fielder Carlos Cortes as he rounded toward second base.
Once he saw Cortes slam into the wall, Schwarz knew.
“It was a good feeling,” Schwarz said with a smile.
It was a feeling Florida and its hot-and-cold offense needed.
Heading into that at-bat, Florida was just 2-for-21 (.095) with runners in scoring position in the series against South Carolina.
The Gators had the bases loaded on three occasions. They came away with two runs. This just a week after putting up 30 runs in its two wins at Vanderbilt and another 10 in a midweek game at Florida State.
Add in the fact that Jackson Kowar gave up five runs in 6 1/3 innings to put the Gators down by two runs late, Florida needed some sense of life.
Schwarz did just that and reminded fans what he can bring to the offense.
Just like he did when he hit a school-record four home runs against Stetson as a freshman.
And just like he did when he hit a grand slam against Florida State in the NCAA Super Regionals last year to send the Gators to the College World Series for a second straight year.
“When he’s going well, he just always seems to be driving in runs,” Kowar said. “If he’s hitting well, he’s not just getting base hits. That’s big for the team.”
And with the win, the Gators (27-13, 10-8 SEC) are still in the hunt for the SEC Championship. They trail SEC East leader Kentucky by 1.5 games and overall leader Mississippi State by three games with four weekend series remaining.
If Florida wants to make a run in the conference -- and in the NCAA Tournament -- they’ll need Schwarz and the offense to step up.
Schwarz is hoping this is the first step he needs to get there.
“Hitting is about confidence,” Schwarz said. “That’s something I’ve been lacking. Hopefully this will boost me a little bit.”