GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Before this season started, Florida baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan suggested that senior right-hander Frank Rubio would probably lead the team in appearances out of the bullpen.
It hasn’t played out that way. In fact, before taking the mound in the fourth inning Tuesday night, Rubio had faced just 2 batters since March 26 and hadn’t recorded an out since March 19.
But he gave the Gators everything they needed this time.
Rubio allowed 2 hits, 0 walks and 0 earned runs over 4 innings Tuesday evening while earning the win in No. 12 Florida’s 2-1 victory against North Florida at McKethan Stadium.
With that, Florida (25-12) continues its recent momentum with 5 wins in its last 6 games, heading into a pivotal SEC series this week with South Carolina.
“It was an important game for us. If we want to creep back into (being a) super regional-type host, this is one of those games we needed to win, and I told the guys that before the game,” O’Sullivan said. “You can’t be looking ahead to South Carolina. We all know how important that series is — they all are on the weekends at this point. But this was an important game for us, and lucky enough for us Frank, being a senior, stepped up and gave us a chance to win and held it right there.”
Rubio struck out 3 while lowering his ERA to 4.15 with his best performance of the season. The 4 innings matched a career high and might just have regained him some of that earlier confidence from O’Sullivan.
His last 3 times out Rubio had taken the loss at Auburn while yielding 3 hits and an unearned run in 2/3 of an inning, had given up a 2-run homer at LSU without recording an out and had given up a hit and walk to the only batters he faced against Florida State.
“It’s a long season. It’s just one of those things. I think in this game it’s very easy to jump off a guy’s bandwagon when he’s struggling,” O’Sullivan said. “But once again, Dalton (Guthrie) has been struggling and all of a sudden the last 2 games he’s been on fire. And Frank’s had a tough year and all of a sudden he goes out there and gives us 4 scoreless. Sometimes you’ve just got to press the reset button and just start over. You can’t keep dwelling on the past, you can’t keep dwelling on the negative. That just goes to show you.”
Indeed, this time Rubio seized his opportunity after taking over with runners on first and second and no outs in the top of the fourth inning, replacing starter Nate Brown.
Though, not with the smoothest of beginnings.
He immediately gave up an RBI single to Christian Diaz that gave North Florida (26-14) a 1-0 lead at the time, and he admitted flashbacks of his recent struggles crept into his mind.
“For sure, I definitely had that thought in my mind. I won’t deny it,” he’d say later.
But the senior retired the next 3 batters on a sacrifice bunt, a called third strike and a pop out to shortstop, and found his rhythm from there.
Rubio pitched a clean fifth inning and got out of another jam in the sixth. With runners on first and second and 1 out, he fielded a comebacker to the mound and started an inning-ending double play.
And he finished his night with 2 strikeouts in a 1-2-3 top of the seventh, exiting with a confidence-building outing — both for he and the coaching staff.
“We’ve been struggling [in] mid-week games with our freshmen going 5-6 innings so I just felt like at that point I wanted to lean on a senior,” O’Sullivan said. “I know [assistant coach Brad Weitzel has] talked to him extensively, especially last week at Vanderbilt about regrouping. Sometimes it only takes 1 hitter in a big situation, sometimes it takes 1 outing and sure enough the next game he’s called upon he does a nice job. So, hopefully, he can run with it and have a lot of confidence moving forward because we do need him.”
As for his season not playing out quite as he hoped to this point, Rubio said he’s focused on “just staying ready.” He’s been working on his mechanics a bit to shorten his stride, get on top of the ball more and work ahead early in counts — which he did successfully Tuesday evening.
“I think it definitely gives Sully a little bit of confidence knowing that he has someone that can throw strikes,” Rubio said. “I’ve done it in the past, so I think it was just more so reassuring him that he’s got another arm to help him with [Garrett] Milchin and [Michael] Byrne, who are really shaping up to pitch pretty well down the stretch.”
While he was keeping the Ospreys quiet offensively, Florida took control of the game on a JJ Schwarz RBI double in the bottom of the fourth and a Guthrie RBI single in the fifth. Both clutch hits came with 2 outs.
— Ryan Young (@RyanYoungSEC) April 19, 2017
Guthrie finished 2 for 3 with a third of the Gators’ 6 total hits.
Milchin followed Rubio on the mound with a scoreless eighth inning and Byrne closed out the win with a perfect ninth for his sixth save.
— Ryan Young (@RyanYoungSEC) April 19, 2017
O’Sullivan lauded the collective pitching performance and noted that UNF has traditionally given the Gators a struggle. As for Florida’s own quiet offensive night, a game after tallying 20 runs and 20 hits at Vanderbilt, he said the Ospreys’ pitchers gave his guys looks they haven’t seen much of this season and he thought a couple of deep outs could have gone out of the ballpark on a different night.
In the end, it was a win.
“That’s what a good offense does. Not all 9 guys are going to be going like last Saturday, so you just need a bunch of other guys to pick some other guys up when they’re having tough nights and tonight they did,” he said.