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Gators get off on the wrong foot in Hoover

Tucker

By MIKE McCALL

HOOVER, Ala.—This is the big stage, and UF didn’t look ready for it.

Quite literally, the Southeastern Conference Tournament is a bigger stage than the Gators are used to. That was clear in the first inning, when first baseman Preston Tucker hit a deep shot to right.

It would likely have cleared the fence at the friendly confines of McKethan Stadium, but instead, the larger dimensions of Regions Park swallowed it up for a flyout.

This is the postseason, and UF is going to have to go a little beyond the usual effort to get things done.

Rather than rolling seventh-seeded Arkansas, the Gators sputtered to an 8-5 loss. They caught most of the breaks but made enough sloppy mistakes to give back their good fortune.

The Razorbacks entered the game having lost eight of their previous 10, and they were without top hitter and starting shortstop Scott Lyons. UA’s ace, Dallas Keuchel, was off his game, walking a career-high six batters en route to his shortest outing of the year (3.2 innings).

Second-base umpire Ken Couch even made a kick-save to keep an Arkansas run off the books in the first inning, as a grounder up the middle struck his leg and the runner who would’ve scored was forced to remain at second base.

But none of that was enough, because UF didn’t show up.

The Gators made four errors and put together just four hits, all singles, and they didn’t look primed to end UF’s 18-year conference title drought.

Tucker’s two-RBI single in the fourth was the team’s only hit with runners in scoring position. There were needless bunt attempts when good hitters should be swinging away.

There were plenty of pitches clocked in the 65-miles-per-hour range, and even though I’m a little skeptical of the radar gun’s accuracy, that’s not the kind of dominant pitching you want on your side at this stage of the season.

Now, I don’t mean to dump all over this team. The Gators have far surpassed my expectations this year. They’re going to host an NCAA regional, and if they can pull themselves together, beat No. 7 Mississippi on Thursday and win another game or two, they’re likely to earn a national seed and the right to host a super regional as well.

But all that comes from UF’s exemplary 38-18 regular-season record. The postseason is different, and what I saw on Wednesday didn’t exactly inspire confidence that this team will do something last year’s team couldn’t do—win in the postseason.

Coach Kevin O’Sullivan is only in his second year, and it’s crystal clear that he has the program headed in the right direction. But the Gators lack two things that are necessary for tournament success: a deep, experienced pitching staff and a few legit sluggers.

UF will be relying on plenty of young arms—talented young arms with tons of potential, but still young and unproven.

It seems like most teams are aware of Tucker’s power and try to avoid him, but the Gators need Avery Barnes, Josh Adams, Brandon McArthur and Matt den Dekker to start clicking at the same time.

If that happens, UF will be a force. A loss Thursday wouldn’t be enough to declare the Gators’ hopes of reaching the College World Series dead, but if they can’t have a repeat of Wednesday’s performance.

One or two more of those outings would mean the end of the line, no matter how many breaks they catch.

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