GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida baseball team continues to cruise through its SEC schedule, asserting itself as both the team to beat in the conference and in the country, for that matter.
But the No. 1-ranked Gators have shown some vulnerability in their recent nonconference games, taking a 6-4 loss to Mercer on Tuesday night for their second-straight midweek loss.
Despite their perch atop the conference standings, this one did not sit well with the Gators, who were coming off a loss in the series finale at Kentucky on Saturday and has now lost back-to-back games for the first time since early March.
“Obviously, we don’t want to lose. I think that’s the first time all year [actually since the back-to-back UCF games] that we’ve lost two in a row. We’re not going to lose three in a row,” slugger Wil Dalton said afterward.
“We don’t expect to lose. We didn’t expect to stumble. We expected to come out here and do what we’ve been doing. There’s no questions asked. I mean, this has got to be fixed.”
It looked like the Gators (34-8) had survived an inauspicious start after freshman right-hander Hunter McMullen gave up a two-out single and 3 straight walks while uncorking 3 wild pitches in the top of the first inning.
For all that, he only let in 1 run on a bases-loaded walk, and Florida answered right back with 4 runs in the bottom of the inning.
Dalton clubbed his SEC-leading 16th home run — a 2-run shot hit high into sky that got some help from the wind to carry just past the left-field fence — JJ Schwarz singled, later scored on a Blake Reese RBI single and Reese eventually came home on a wild pitch for a 4-1 Gators lead.
But it was short-lived.
Mercer (29-14) got a RJ Yeager homer to lead off the third inning and a 2-run double from Le Bassett to tie it up.
The visiting Bears then pulled ahead the next inning. Kyle Dockus started with a leadoff single, took second on reliever Connor Churchill’s throwing error, took third on Alex Hanson’s single and came in to score on a squeeze bunt from Yeager to make it 5-4.
Sophomore reliever Andrew Baker, who gave up that squeeze after replacing Churchill on the mound, settled things down from there and didn’t allow a hit or a run (charged to him) over 4 innings of relief.
But Florida’s bats went cold as Mercer reliever Robert Broom threw 6 scoreless frames out of the bullpen to close out the win. He threw 106 pitches, struck out 12 and only gave up 1 walk and 4 hits.
“This one is a little disappointing, to be honest with you,” Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “We got off to a bad start on the mound. I think we had 2 outs in the first on 7 pitches, next thing you know we’re walking a run in. … They went to one of their best relievers, he’s got great numbers and he threw 105-106 pitches and pitched great. He was probably the difference in the ballgame obviously. … But the disappointing part is this is the second game in a row we haven’t made very good adjustments in the middle of the game.”
Schwarz finished 2 for 2 with 2 walks and a run and Nelson Maldonado was 2 for 4 with a run in the loss.
As noted, this marks both back-to-back overall losses and back-to-back nonconference losses as well after an 8-4 defeat to Jacksonville last week.
The Gators will look to continue their overall SEC success while hosting Auburn for a three-game series starting Thursday.
O’Sullivan gathered the team in the dugout after the game for an extended talk, which has not been common this season.
“[He was] just trying to tell us to keep our heads up, keep us locked in and everything like that. It’s a tough loss,” Baker said. “We want to win every single time and all of us are competitive, so he’s just really trying to get us back up and tell us to lock back in. It’s going to happen. Guys are going to be amped up to play us every single time so we’ve got to just stay up, just really fight no matter who we play.”