GAINESVILLE, Fla- No. 4 Florida (41-15/22-8 SEC) used a seven-run fourth inning and a 25-hit outburst to defeat Kentucky (25-30/8-22 SEC), 19-3, and earn a share of the SEC Championship on Saturday afternoon at McKethan Stadium.
Splitting both the league’s overall and Eastern Division titles with No. 2 South Carolina (44-12) and No. 3 Vanderbilt (44-9), the Gators became the first program to repeat as the SEC winner since LSU accomplished the feat in 1996-97. Florida will be the third seed for next week’s SEC Tourney in Hoover, Ala., and will face sixth-seeded Mississippi State (34-21/14-16 SEC) on Wednesday afternoon.
Florida claimed its 12th SEC Championship after previously bringing home the crown in 1952, 1956, 1962, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1988, 1996, 1998, 2005 and 2010. LSU’s total of 14 titles leads the conference, while Alabama is second with 13 and UF is next with 12. The Orange and Blue also matched its school record for regular-season wins (1989 (41-18 reg. season), 1991 (41-19 reg. season), 1996 (41-14 reg. season) and 1998 (41-13 reg. season)).
The Gators repeated as the league champion for the second time in school history and the first time since 1981-82. In addition, Florida earned its third-consecutive Eastern Division title, last done by the Gators from 1996-98. UF’s 21 division titles is the highest total in the SEC, as LSU is second with 15. Now in his fourth season, Kevin O’Sullivan became the fourth Gator head coach to win multiple SEC Championships, along with Dave Fuller (1952, 1956, 1962), Joe Arnold (1984, 1988) and Andy Lopez (1996, 1998).
With today’s success on the diamond, Florida captured eight SEC titles in 2010-11 (baseball, men’s basketball, women’s cross country, men’s golf, soccer, women’s tennis, men’s indoor track & field & volleyball). The total equals the most league crowns in a school year - UF in 1991-92 and matched by Georgia in 2005-06. Baseball’s victory today secured the program’s 50th league title in the past 10 years.
Five different Gators totaled three or more hits to claim the rubber game of the series, powered by a pair of homers and six-RBI by sophomore Austin Maddox (Jacksonville, Fla.) (3-for-6, two runs) and four-RBI efforts from senior Josh Adams (Jacksonville, Fla.) (3-for-6, two runs) and sophomore Brian Johnson (Cocoa Beach, Fla.) (3-for-4, two runs). Sophomore Mike Zunino (Cape Coral, Fla.) was a perfect 4-for-4 with four runs and finished SEC play with a .422 average, 33 RBI, 14 doubles and eight homers, while junior Preston Tucker (Tampa, Fla.) (5-for-6) had career-bests in hits (five) and runs (five). Freshman Karsten Whitson (Chipley, Fla.) improved to 7-0 by giving up one run on seven hits in five innings. The righty had four strikeouts and did not allow any walks.
“Karsten gave us another quality start,” said O’Sullivan. “The big theme today was that we swung the bats really well. Brian Johnson got us on the board first and kind of loosened everybody up.”
Junior Thomas McCarthy gave Kentucky a 1-0 lead in the first inning against Whitson on an RBI grounder that scored senior Taylor Black. Black had poked a one-out double and gone to third base on a base-hit into left field by junior Chad Wright (3-for-5). McCarthy’s ground ball to second base brought in Black with the opening run of the contest.
Johnson tied the game at 1-1 with a leadoff homer in the bottom of the second to right field off freshman Corey Littrell (6-6). It was his fourth big fly of the campaign.
The Gators seized a 3-1 lead in the third on an RBI grounder by Adams and a two-out single up the middle by Johnson. Zunino singled with one down and a double to right field by Tucker gave Florida a pair of runners in scoring position. Adams brought home Zunino with a grounder to second base and Johnson ripped Littrell’s next pitch into center field to drive in Tucker. Maddox followed with a base-hit for two runners aboard before Littrell struck out junior Daniel Pigott (Ormond Beach, Fla.).
McCarthy and junior Braden Kapetyn started the fourth with consecutive singles and a fly-out by junior Michael Williams advanced McCarthy to third. With runners on the corners and one down, Whitson struck out freshman J.T. Riddle and freshman Lucas Witt to escape the jam.
In the home part of the frame, Florida exploded for seven-consecutive hits and scored seven runs to take a commanding 10-1 lead. Senior Bryson Smith (Watkinsville, Ga.) reached on a one-out error by Black and sophomore Nolan Fontana (Winter Garden, Fla.) extended his hitting streak to a career-high 10 games with a double to push Smith to third. Zunino sliced a single into right field to score Smith and Tucker had a bloop hit into left field to bring in Fontana. Adams doubled down the left-field line to plate Zunino and prompt a pitching change. Junior Alex Phillips took over for Littrell (3.1 IP, 10 H, 8 R, 7 ER) and surrendered a two-run single to Johnson and a two-run homer by Maddox, his fifth round-tripper of the season.
Florida tacked on four more runs in the fifth on an RBI single by Adams and a three-run shot by Maddox to take a 14-1 lead. Zunino led off with a double and a single by Tucker put a pair of runners in scoring position and caused another call to the bullpen. Adams greeted sophomore reliever Walter Wijas with an RBI single into left field and a wild pitch enabled both runners to move up. Maddox cleared the bases with his second homer of the contest, a three-run blast into the left-field bleachers.
Whitson scattered seven hits over five innings, giving up one run, and registered four strikeouts without any walks. Junior Tommy Toledo (Tampa, Fla.) pitched a scoreless sixth with two strikeouts and two hits.
Tucker roped an RBI double and Adams stroked an RBI single in the sixth to give the hosts a 16-1 lead. Zunino collected his fourth hit of the afternoon with two down and came around from first base on Tucker’s second two-bagger of the afternoon. Adams then rifled a base-knock up the middle to drive in Tucker.
The Gators scored three more times in the eighth on an RBI grounder by Maddox and run-scoring singles by junior Tyler Thompson (Tequesta, Fla.) and redshirt sophomore Vickash Ramjit (Miami, Fla.).
Junior Nick Maronde (Lexington, Ky.) had one strikeout and permitted one hit in the seventh, sophomore Steven Rodriguez (Miami, Fla.) gave up a hit and had a K in the eighth and junior Anthony DeSclafani (Freehold, N.J.) permitted three hits and two runs (one earned) to close the game in the ninth. Florida held a 25-14 advantage in hits, with 12 different players chipping in with at least one.