No. 1 Florida Shows Potential In Opening Day Win

Image credit: Florida righthander Tommy Mace (Photo courtesy of Florida)

A host of emotions pulled at Florida on Friday night. It was Opening Day after the longest, trying offseason in college baseball history. The opponent was archrival Miami. The Gators were the top-ranked team in the country in the Preseason Top 25, a status that puts an even bigger target on their backs. To top it all off, they were opening Florida Ballpark, their new $65 million stadium.

Any one of those circumstances would have made Friday night a special one for the Gators. To pile them all together on one night made for a game that will live forever in program history.

Florida rose to the occasion and defeated No. 11 Miami, 7-5. The Gators controlled the game much of the night behind righthander Tommy Mace’s solid start and catcher Nathan Hickey’s big game at the plate. They looked the part of the top-ranked team in the country – even while working out first-game jitters and rust.

“Offensively, we were a little slow, struck out quite a bit early,” coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “Nathan’s home run loosened everyone up quite a bit. Tommy made some good pitches when he needed to.  It wasn’t the cleanest of games.”

Mace became the rare Florida pitcher to start back-to-back Opening Days and pitched well. He held the Hurricanes to one run on three hits and two walks in five innings, striking out eight. He worked out of trouble in both the second and third innings before settling in and retiring the final eight batters he faced.

The difference came when Mace found a better feel for his offspeed pitches, especially his breaking ball, and started throwing them for strikes. As O’Sullivan noted, once Mace locks that feel in from the start of the game, he’ll take his game to another level.

That will come in time. Mace has the ability to be a true ace for Florida – it’s part of why he’s back in college despite drawing interest in the first couple rounds of the 2020 draft. But, on Friday night, Mace did his job and then handed the ball to the deepest bullpen in the country.

“All in all, for his first start with the 11-month layoff, the expectations and playing Miami, new ballpark, I thought he handled it fine,” O’Sullivan said. “I would predict him to be better as he moves forward.”

Righthander Christian Scott followed with three scoreless innings, striking out two batters. The game tightened in the ninth when freshman righthander Chase Centala loaded the bases with no outs, a jam that eventually led to four runs for the Hurricanes before lefthander Franco Aleman got the final two outs.

But that rally was too little, too late because Florida’s lineup did its job. Except for Hickey’s first-inning home run, the Gators were held in check early in the game by righthander Daniel Federman, Miami’s closer turned Friday starter. That changed in the fifth, when they scored three runs to chase Federman, adding another in the sixth and two more in the eighth.

Hickey delivered a pair of big hits – a two-run ground-rule double to go with his home run, first baseman Kris Armstrong homered and shortstop Josh Rivera tripled and scored twice. In all, Florida pounded the ball, and six of its 11 hits went for extra bases.

“Nathan had a good night at the plate,” O’Sullivan said. “Jordan Butler just keeps on hitting. Kris Armstrong had some good at bats as well – hit the home run and hit a ball hard to the right side to the first baseman that almost got through.”

In the end, the result was familiar for Florida. It was the Gators’ sixth straight win against their rivals and 18th in 22 games, a stretch that dates to 2014, the last time the Hurricanes won the series.

Beyond Florida’s dominance of its rival, however, Friday’s game spoke to its potential. There are things for the Gators to smooth out in the days and weeks to come –cutting down on their strikeouts at the plate and walks on the mound, for example – but they still opened the season with a solid victory against a very talented team.

A year ago, almost to the day, Florida went to Coral Gables and swept Miami in a series that elevated the Gators to No. 1 in the Top 25. The weekend served notice to college baseball that the Gators were back atop the sport. They’ve only gotten better since then. What level might they have reached in June?

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