From the stretch of non-conference play to the open the 2023 season, it seemed the Florida Gators were most comfortable in offensive explosions. Headed into the opening weekend of Southeastern Conference play against Alabama, the Gators led the NCAA in hits, home runs and runs scored. In their last seven games, all wins, four came before the ninth inning thanks to the 10-run rule.
Friday, the Gators were pushed well out of their comfort zone against the Crimson Tide, trading defensive blows in a game that was shutout on both sides through five and a half innings. In the end, Florida looked just as collected, bringing in a victory to open the 2023 conference slate.
No. 5 Florida (17-3, 1-0 SEC) defeated No. 24 Alabama (16-3, 0-1 SEC) 3-0 at home Friday. Florida starting pitcher Brandon Sproat shined for the Gators, finishing with a career high 11 strikeouts and just one hit to earn the shutout and the win.
“Really it all comes down to my mental side,” Sproat said. “Last week I was struggling a little bit, and this week I had a lot of clarity. It works for me, so I’m gonna keep building on it.”
Sproat started off the evening by plunking the leadoff batter to put a runner at first. From there, the Gators were able to force the double play ball, opening up Sproat for the frame-ending strikeout without a hit.
The Gators went three up and three down in the first to make it even at 0-0 after one.
Alabama senior Ed Johnson got the first knock of the night for a two-out single in the top of the second. Sproat walked the next batter to put a runner in scoring position, but junior infielder Colby Halter picked up the force-out at third base to close the frame.
Junior infielder Josh Rivera stepped to the plate to lead off for the Gators in the second. He smacked a ball to left field for Florida’s opening hit of the night and a single. He reached second on a passed ball. None of Rivera’s teammates were able to bring him in, keeping it scoreless headed into the third inning.
UF’s defense grabbed a 1-2-3 inning in the top of the third, capped off by Sproat’s third strikeout of the contest. The Gators went 1-2-3 themselves to make it a 0-0 opening third.
Sproat picked up his fourth and fifth strikeouts of the night in the fourth frame on his way to back-to-back perfect innings.
In the bottom of the fourth, Alabama pulled its starter for junior left-hander Hunter Furtado. he stepped up to face sophomore two-way player and fellow lefty Jac Caglianone, who leads the NCAA in home runs (13) headed into the weekend series. He popped out, and the Gators went three up and three down to close the fourth inning, still tied 0-0.
Florida kept it clean in the top of the fifth as Sproat notched his sixth strikeout of the evening. The Crimson Tide did the same in the bottom of the fifth to keep the scoreboard at zero runs and just one hit a piece.
With two outs in the top of the sixth inning, Sproat threw four-straight balls to put a runner on base for the first time since the third. After throwing a fifth ball, Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan stepped out to the mound for a word with his ace. He left him in the game, and Sproat snagged his seventh strikeout to close the frame and keep it a scoreless game, walking off to the dugout with some emotion.
The Gators used that momentum in the bottom of the sixth.
Redshirt freshman outfielder Michael Robertson worked a two-out walk to put a runner on for the Gators. True freshman infielder Cade Kurland stepped to the plate and took a changeup. The next pitch, he sent a two-run shot to left field to make it a 2-0 Gators lead after the middle third.
“I came in sitting fastball, looking to do damage.” Kurland said.
Sproat re-entered the game in the seventh and dealt. He notched his eighth and ninth strikeouts to tie his career high in just 83 pitches and kept the shutout alive.
Florida added to its lead after Rivera singled and advanced around to third. Sophomore outfielder Ty Evans grounded out, but scored Rivera to make it a 3-0 Gators lead through seven.
In the top of the eighth, Sproat touched a career high 11 strikeouts to close the frame.
Sproat got the call in the top of the ninth inning and attempted to close the contest. He snagged all three outs and exited his complete-game shutout to a raucous standing ovation.
“I think that’s the best he’s thrown since he’s been here,” O’Sullivan said. “He was really special tonight.”
Florida takes on Alabama in game two with a chance at a series-clinching victory. First pitch is set for 6:30 p.m. and the game will stream on SEC Network+.