After a tumultuous offseason, senior pitcher Stephen Locke needed Friday night.
There was no doubting Florida’s victory against South Carolina as he stepped on the mound with a comfortable 9-2 lead in the ninth, but the question remained if he would get the complete game.
His first pitch went awry as it soared off the end of Whit Merrifield’s bat and over the left-field wall. Two batters later, Nick Ebert took a 3-2 pitch just right of the left-field foul pole to make it a 9-4 game.
Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan then replaced Locke with junior Billy Bullock, who retired the next two batters to clinch Florida’s 9-4 victory.
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Even though he improved to 3-0 on the season, Locke seemed to care more about his short ninth inning than his eight solid ones prior.
“It’s unfortunate,” Locke said of the two homers he gave up in the ninth. “I had it going pretty well. I just fell behind those two guys at the end of the game. That’s what happens when you fall behind good hitters like that — they’ll make you pay.”
Locke certainly had it going, holding Usc to four hits before the ninth and matching a season-high with six strikeouts. But things did not start off so well.
A passed ball and a wild pitch against consecutive batters in the second helped give USC a 1-0 lead. He loaded the bases but avoided a catastrophe when Ebert, who finished the night 1-for-3, grounded out to third baseman Brandon McArthur.
The third was just as nerve-racking as he walked Jackie Bradley Jr. to lead off the inning, then mishandled Andrew Crisp’s sacrifice bunt. Two batters later, Parker Bangs gave USC a 2-0 lead when his groundout to second baseman Josh Adams scored Bradley Jr. from third.
Another ground out ended the inning and signaled a change in Locke’s arsenal.
Foster said one of the reasons for Locke’s transformation after the third was his pitch decisions. He threw more fastballs to get ahead in the count.
“Once he gets ahead — he’s got so many pitches — it’s tough to get a hit off him,” Foster said of Locke.
While Locke’s pitching overwhelmed the Gamecocks, the Gators found their offensive spark from the least likely place: the bunt.
After USC starting pitcher Sam Dyson walked both Foster and Mike Mooney to start off the fifth, the Gators laid down three bunts that drove in two runs and added another to go up 4-2.
Foster then extended his hit streak to eight games with his two-run homer off Dyson to give Florida a 6-2 lead.
Dyson’s night came to an end after going seven innings, allowing six runs and striking out four on 117 pitches.
Bangs replaced Dyson in the eighth but allowed three hits and two runs.
All facets of Florida’s game impressed O’Sullivan, but he couldn’t stress the importance of how his team adjusted to beat Dyson in the fifth.
“Going into the game, we knew we weren’t going to just sit back and bang away at a guy throwing 90-95,” he said. “You’ve got to create other ways to get runs and it was just one of those innings where it went our way.”