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LEXINGTON, Ky. – No. 5 Florida (34-12/13-9 SEC) downed No. 6 Kentucky (36-10/14-8 SEC), 5-3, on Thursday night at Cliff Hagan Stadium in the opener of a crucial SEC series between Eastern Division rivals. With the victory, the Gators moved within a game of the Wildcats in the conference standings, while No. 3 South Carolina (34-11/14-7 SEC and No. 4 LSU (36-10/14-7 SEC) now share the league lead.
The Gators used a solo homer by senior Preston Tucker (Tampa, Fla.) (2-for-4, two RBI) in the first inning and a three-run third frame to stake junior Hudson Randall (Atlanta, Ga.) to a 4-0 lead. The right-hander (5-1) worked into the seventh inning before junior lefty Steven Rodriguez (Miami, Fla.) hurled 2.1 scoreless innings in which he totaled three strikeouts and allowed two hits to register his first save of the campaign.
Tucker opened the scoring with a two-out solo homer in the first inning to right field off junior Taylor Rogers (5-3). His 12th big fly of the season matched junior Mike Zunino (Cape Coral, Fla.) for the team lead and was the third of his career against the Wildcats, all at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
In the bottom of the frame, senior Thomas McCarthy had a one-out single up the middle but the Gators turned an inning-ending double play when Randall caught junior Luke Maile looking on strikes and Zunino threw out McCarthy attempting to steal second base.
The Gators plated three more runs on four hits and an error in the third to build a 4-0 advantage. Freshman Josh Tobias (Greensboro, N.C.) and junior Nolan Fontana (Winter Garden, Fla.) began the inning with consecutive singles and were sacrificed into scoring position on a bunt by senior Daniel Pigott (Ormond Beach, Fla.). Tucker delivered a single into left field that brought in Tobias and a throwing error on the relay by junior Zac Zellers enabled Fontana to score. After Rogers had Zunino fly out, junior Brian Johnson (Cocoa Beach, Fla.) roped a two-out single into left field to drive in Tucker for a four-run cushion.
Randall had retired eight-straight Wildcats before Zellers led off the home part of the fifth with a base-hit up the middle. Sophomore J.T. Riddle advanced his teammate with a sacrifice bunt and redshirt junior Cameron Flynn (2-for-4) put the hosts on the board with an RBI double off the wall in right center to narrow the gap to 4-1. Randall had senior Michael Williams fly out and sophomore Matt Reida ground out to complete the inning.
Freshman Casey Turgeon (Palm Harbor, Fla.) started the seventh with a four-pitch walk and Rogers (6.0 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 5 K) was taken out with a 2-0 count on freshman Justin Shafer (Lake Wales, Fla.). Freshman Sam Mahar plunked Shafer for two Gators aboard and Tobias laid down a sacrifice bunt to push Turgeon to third and Shafer to second. Mahar jammed Fontana on an infield pop-up and had Pigott line out to right field to strand the runners and keep the Wildcats down by three runs.
Williams (2-for-4) brought Kentucky within 4-3 with a two-out, two-run homer in the bottom of the frame. Randall recorded the first two outs of the frame before Flynn punched a single up the middle. Williams connected on his second homer of the year to left field to cut the Wildcats’ deficit to one run and prompt a pitching change. Rodriguez took over for Randall (6.2 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 4 K, 1 BB) and struck out Reida.
Freshman Austin Cousino led off UK’s eighth with a single up the middle and was sacrificed into scoring position by McCarthy. Maile drew a walk for two runners aboard and Rodriguez struck out sophomore pinch hitter Lucas Witt. Cousino stole third for runners on the corners and Rodriguez came through with an inning-ending strikeout of Zellers to preserve UF’s slim margin.
Junior Austin Maddox (Jacksonville, Fla.) singled into left center to begin the ninth and was replaced on first base by freshman pinch runner Connor Mitchell (Tampa, Fla.). Turgeon executed a sacrifice bunt to move Mitchell over and cause a pitching change. Junior Tim Peterson replaced Mahar (2.1 IP, 1 H, 1 R) and Shafer came through with an RBI single into center field that scored Mitchell with a valuable insurance run to give Florida a 5-3 lead. Shafer alertly took second base on the relay throw to the plate and advanced to third on a grounder by Tobias. However, Peterson had Fontana fly out to end the stanza.
With the Wildcats down to their final three outs, Rodriguez had Riddle ground out and Flynn fly out before Williams singled into left field to extend the contest. The southpaw nailed down the save by having redshirt sophomore pinch hitter Micheal Thomas pop up to first base to end the game. The Gators held a 9-8 advantage in hits and did not commit any errors.
Sophomore right-hander Karsten Whitson (Chipley, Fla.) (3-0, 3.86) will be on the bump tomorrow at 7 p.m. against junior Jerad Grundy (4-1, 4.29).