Gators Get Jump On State Early For 11-1 Romp

Freshman RHP Evan Mitchell

GAINESVILLE – Maybe Florida is only the second-highest seeded squad in this year's NCAA tournament. But Mississippi State has first-hand evidence these Gators look every bit the best team in the country.

Gator batters jumped on Mississippi State pitching for four runs in the initial inning and barely slowed the pounding pace en route to a 11-1 victory, in the opening game of this NCAA super regional. Florida (49-16) and the #2 national seed is now one more win away from the College World Series. The Bulldogs (37-24) are a loss away from ending their season.

"Obviously we're not thrilled with our performance," said Coach John Cohen.

Equally obviously, there was not a whole lot the Bulldogs could have done to prevent the national #2 seed from continuing their scorching postseason pace. Florida picked right up where they had left off last weekend in winning their home-field regional, scoring at least once in all the first five innings and building a 10-0 lead before State could scratch something onto the scoreboard.

By the same token, it turned out the Gators only needed to tally a couple of runs anyway. Hudson Randall made sure of that. The brilliant righthander shut Mississippi State out for the first five innings and shrugged off the lone score with two more blank frames.

Hudson Randall did a great job," said Cohen. "I thought in the middle there his command left him but he's a really good college pitcher." Good verging on great for one of the SEC's most impressive righties of 2011. Randall (10-3) went a full 8.0 innings with the one MSU run on six hits and two walks, against a career (so far) eight strikeouts. His innings and 115 pitches were also season-mosts.

"He kept throwing down a lot, he wasn't leaving a lot of pitches up like he did in the first game back home," said 3B Jarrod Parks, one of the Dog batters who had any real success against the righty. State swingers had hoped to rock Randall as they did back on April 8 in Starkville, when they hit three home runs and went on for a 7-5 win. What they saw was an even more matured kid on the hill, not to mention playing on a familiar field.

"He didn't walk a lot of people but he's always been like that," said Parks, who got both his base hits off the starter. "He just did a good job mixing it up and kept our hitters off-balance." Keenan Kish took care of a scoreless ninth inning just so Randall didn't have to over-work on a hot day.

Mississippi State also sent a young righty to the hill. With some confidence, too, after the way Evan Mitchell had thrown both against the Gators in the SEC Tournament and then his eight-plus innings victory over Austin Peay State last Saturday evening. Things didn't work out as well this time, which was clear very soon.

"I felt fine going out there, I just needed to throw strikes early," Mitchell said. "And I got behind because (then) I couldn't throw my second pitch for a strike." Which proved a fatal combination as Florida could afford to wait for something they really wanted to swing at; otherwise, they accepted free passes.

Mitchell (6-2) lasted 2.0 plus innings with seven of the runs on five hits, three walks, with two strikeouts. "Evan has done such a great job his last three or four outings," Cohen said. "He got behind instantly, the two walks score. If you give up solo home runs it won't kill you, but walks in front of that are not going to win for you." In fact, of the five walks issued by Mitchell and then first reliever Devin Jones, four scored.

Fittingly, if frustratingly, Mitchell began the abbreviated day with two walks around a base hit to load all bases for top Gator stick Mike Zunino. He chipped a short single behind shortstop for the first two RBI. A strikeout later it was a 1-2 count for Tyler Thompson, before he drove one that tailed away from CF C.T. Bradford and into the right gap for a two-run double. Mitchell picked Thompson off and rolled a grounder but was down 4-0 already.

An inning later it was a 6-0 as a one-out walk brought Nolan Fontana up for his second appearance. The Gator shortstop got every bit of the offering and yanked it over rightfield for the two-run homer, and his fifth shot of the season. And when Zuninio took his first pitch of the third inning over the leftfield fence it was a done day for the State starter.

"Most of my pitches were up, probably half of them," said Mitchell. "And you can't win when you're doing that, especially getting behind in the count."

Meanwhile Randall was rolling along, leaving Parks stranded after his first-inning single and a pair on in the second. LF Brent Brownlee and SS Jonathan Ogden both hit with two outs, before C Wes Thigpen foul-tipped the third strike. A leadoff Bradford single in the third was negated by a one-out failed steal, so Randall could officially retire eight-straight into the fifth before a pair of walks. Both were left unscored as 1B Ryan Collins hit it well but to the centerfielder.

Randall had five strikeouts just in the first two innings. "If you're super aggressive he's going to get through four or five innings without throwing many pitches at all," Cohen said. "I felt the first time we faced him we did a great job taking marginal pitches." This time though Randall got those marginal calls, where Mitchell had been missing by much more.

By contrast Florida cashed in more chances off bullpen Bulldogs. Jones walked the leadoff Gator in the fourth, then with the runner at second was hit by Bryson Smith for the RBI-single. This time it was Tyler Thompson with a routine base-hit single plating the teammate. Kendall Graveman took the hill in the fifth inning only to have a hot leadoff shot to shortstop misplayed into a two-base error. A grounder and fly ball made it 10-0.

The Bulldogs avoided shutout stigma with a sixth inning score, as Parks singled again and got to third on a double to leftfield by 2B Nick Vickerson. RF Jaron Shepherd grounded in the lead runner, and with two outs Brownlee hit a bullet right to the leftfielder to strand Vickerson at third base. By then Florida had two in their bullpen, but Randall was allowed to return. Having fanned or rolled Bulldog batters up to then, he suddenly went on a stretch of six fly-ball outs.

Parks said it was just a matter of changing plate-approach to try to avoid the slider-strikeouts. "He has a lot of sink and if he tries to get you with a slider in the dirt you're going to try to stay underneath the next time around. We did that a few times through."

And for good Gator measure they got the run back in their seventh as Daniel Pigott sailed a solo homer to the top row behind leftfield. State gave former starter Chris Stratton the eighth inning, which began badly with another shortstop error and a walk. He left both in place with two strikeouts and a pop-fly.

Three Floridans had multiple hits, paced by Smith with a 3-of-5 day, two runs and a RBI. Zunino was 2-of-4 with three RBI and two runs. Parks accounted for two of the seven State hits and scored the only run, and none of the ten fly-outs Randall coaxed came close to leaving the park.

Still, Cohen said, "You look at our chart it's not as bad as you think. At least every guy in our lineup but one hit a ball hard, right at somebody. But I feel if we have the same approach tomorrow and eliminate a little swing-and-miss and get balls to fall, I think we can score some runs."

Saturday's game has the same noon-et start, and the if-necessary third game would be 1:00 Sunday. Mississippi State will ask junior lefthander Nick Routt to keep their season going, while Florida will throw righthander Karsten Whitson, yet another of their outstanding freshman.

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