#4-ranked Florida took full advantage of a surprisingly shaky start by Bulldog Chris Stratton to score eight times in their second inning, and didn’t stop swinging en route to evening the weekend series. The Gators improved to 25-7, 8-3 SEC, while host Mississippi State is 21-10, 5-6 SEC. The Bulldogs had won Friday’s opener 7-5.
““Obviously I’m very disappointed,” Coach John Cohen said. “We didn’t handle a short turnaround very well, we just didn’t come out and throw strikes today. You can’t compete in this league if you can’t throw strikes.”
Especially not when the strikes that do get thrown are right where a good offense can tee-off. No less than a dozen Gators got at least one safety, five had multiple hits, and catcher Mike Zunino led the list with his three hits for five RBI and four runs. Four of those ribbies came on a single swing as he sailed a bases-loaded drive over the fence for a grand slam in the decisive second inning.
About the only number in MSU’s favor was provided by the 10,332 attending, the 25th crowd of over 10,000 in Polk-Dement Stadium history. The greater portion of that throng hung around surprisingly long considering how early this one was won—and lost—if for no other reason than to hopefully see the shutout snapped. It wasn’t.
The 18 runs were the most allowed by a Bulldog team since a 22-4 loss to Tennessee in 1998. Seven went to the account of sophomore Stratton (4-3) off just three hits compounded by three walks. It wasn’t his worst outing to-date; he was charged with eight runs at Alabama as a freshman. But the 1.2 innings was the shortest start, and a startling showing to all.
“I just couldn’t get it done today. I didn’t do it, myself,” said Stratton, manfully meeting with media after the Diamond Dogs had their own post-game team talk in the locker room. “I personally put this on me. I just couldn’t get it done.”
Then again none of the five following hurlers got much done either. Once in front so early and so far Florida was able to relax and just enjoy more, and live, batting practice at State’s continued expense.
“Florida did a nice job of not swinging at pitches out of the zone,” Cohen said. “And we threw a bunch of pitches out of the zone.”
It was a much different matter for the other starter. Given such overwhelming early support it turned an easy afternoon on the mound for Brian Johnson. Yet the lefthanded soph proved able to take care of himself anyway, throwing seven of the shutout innings at State. Johnson (5-1) was touched for six hits but left everyone on a base, walked nobody, and struck out three. The linescore didn’t reflect the domination.
“He was just shoving it in the strike zone,” Cohen said. “That’s what you’ve got to get our of your starter, and we didn’t.” Nor did the Dogs get too much out of the bats when they did make honest contact, though obviously once down so deep it changed everyone’s approach for the worse.
Stratton’s afternoon went sour soon. He rolled through the first inning easily enough but didn’t survive the second. It wasn’t entirely the pitching’s fault initially, because SS Jonathan Ogden handled a tough leadoff grounder but sailed it for a reach. A one-out single by Austin Maddox and four-pitch walk of Jeff Moyer jammed the paths. Stratton had Daniel Pigott struck out twice except ump Scott Cline wasn’t raising the arm. So Pigott fouled off two more before chipping a single over shortstop for the first run.
Cohen saw Stratton’s issues clearly enough. “He just wasn’t finishing pitches, he was cutting his delivery off instead of finishing.” Thus, the coach acknowledged, “You cannot even discuss an umpire’s zone with your players when you’re missing that big. You don’t deserve to get one marginal call if you’re going to miss that big. And we had huge misses all day from everyone involved.”
Stratton certainly seemed rattled as he missed the next four pitches to the number-nine batter and hit Nolan Fontana on the leg, forcing in runs each time. With two outs he four-pitched Preston Tucker on for one more score and was lifted. Not that reliever Chad Girodo’s first pitch served much better. Because Zunino cranked it over left-centerfield for the grand slam and a 8-0 lead.
Girodo did end the fatal frame and was immediately replaced to let freshman Evan Mitchell get some SEC action. He was two outs into the third before walking Tyler Thompson, who stole into scoring position and was plated by Fontana’s single to leftfield. Who, in turn, came on around via Josh Adams’ hit for a 10-0 margin.
Mitchell managed the first strikeout of any Gator (Moyer) to start the fifth. Florida came back with a bunt single, and a pair more base hits pushed Pigott across for the 11th run. Not the last though as Victor Diaz and Andrew Busby entered to throw more batable balls. Maddox drove in one in the sixth, which was petty change compared to the damage to Busby’s stat-line in the seventh. He was tagged for three singles and a double driving the first four across before exiting.
Kendall Graveman was greeted by a blooper falling just fair for two more runs and the 18-0 scoreboard. That stayed the margin, too, as even when Johnson took his seat after 6.0 full the Dogs took no advantage. Daniel Gibson two-hit them for two innings and Matt Campbell went 1-2-3 in the ninth.
The closest State came to breaking onto their own scoreboard was back in the third as C Cody Freeman knocked a one-out single, followed by 3B Jarrod Parks’ double. Two fast strikeouts ensued. “It just didn’t happen for us,” said Cohen. Freeman had the only offense of note, with three of State’s eight base hits.
The Diamond Dogs had seven-plus innings to contemplate just how this one went so bad, so fast. Florida’s efficient plate approach certainly merited respect and Johnson more than did his duty. That made Stratton’s struggles all the more obvious, and puzzling given his past performances as the game-two guy.
“I mean, that’s one of my worst outings,” he said. “I’d just like to say I didn’t get it done today, and I just need to go to work and get ready to go next week.”
Cohen is counting on it.“We know Stratton is better than that.” The coach is also relying on a team that has had some tastes of SEC success this early season to regroup for Sunday’s game-three and a noon first pitch.
“These kids are pretty resilient, and hopefully we’ll be able to pitch it better tomorrow.” Hopes are being piled on junior lefthander Nick Routt’s (0-1, 2.61) shoulders as he makes his third opening of the comeback season. Ironically it was against Florida in March 2010 that Routt made his only conference start before elbow issues sidelined him. Cohen is still keeping Routt on a pitch count as he returns to 2009 form.
“We’d like to get five or six innings out of him, but you’ve got Luis Pollorena behind him and we have some other options there. We’re in a better bullpen situation for tomorrow than today.”
Florida is listing righthander Karsten Whitson (4-0, 2.06) as their Sunday starter.