By MATTHEW STEVENS
Saturday represented a complete reversal of the opening game of the series for Mississippi State.
Florida jumped all over Bulldogs ace starting pitcher Chris Stratton and cruised to a dominating 18-0 victory.
After State (21-10, 5-6 in Southeastern Conference play) put Florida sophomore starter Hudson Randall through his worst struggles of his short college career, Stratton got the same treatment.
The SEC all-freshman team selection last year hurt himself with three walks and a hit batter in a second inning where the Gators batted around.
“Just couldn’t get it done today – that’s it,” Stratton said. “It’s been one of my worst outings. Put this one on me today.”
Before the frame was completed, Stratton was pulled, left-handed reliever Chad Girodo gave up a grand slam home run on his first pitch to Florida cleanup hitter Mike Zunino and an announced crowd of 10,332 at Dudy Noble sat stunned as the Gators plated its most runs in a single inning all season with eight.
“It’s just like Hudson (Friday) when you’re working behind in the count all the time and your command isn’t good,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “I felt good last night. I thought we competed right down to the last pitch.”
Stratton (4-3) gave up the second-most runs of his 22-start career with the most being when Alabama crushed him for eight in Tuscaloosa last season. The Tupelo native, who still leads MSU in wins and quality starts with four a piece, saw his earned run average skyrocket from 3.04 to 4.22.
“We just didn’t come out and throw strikes today,” Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said. “You can’t compete in this league if you don’t throw strikes. We know Stratton is better than that and he didn’t command the strike zone enough to even give us a chance.”
Florida (25-7, 8-3 in SEC), the top-ranked team in the latest RPI rankings, had all of their hitters in the starting lineup reach base by the fifth inning and Zunino set a career high with five RBIs on the day. The Gators sophomore catcher, who already had a grand slam this season in a 22-5 victory over Winthrop, just had his 17-game hitting streak end against Central Florida Tuesday.
“We tried to be patient and make him throw strikes,” Zunino said. “We felt like we swung the bats well (Friday) night and just tried to carry it over to today.”
The 18 runs scored by the Gators offense marks their season-high in conference play after lighting up the scoreboard for 11 in a home victory last weekend against Tennessee on April 2. It’s the largest margin of victory in a SEC contest against Mississippi State since a 22-4 loss in 1998 when Pat McMahon was the Bulldogs head coach.
Saturday marked the eighth time State has allowed a double-digit run total at home in the last two seasons with the previous worst being 19 given up to Ole Miss last season.
State has now used six pitchers in the first two games of this series and may have to rely on junior left-handed pitcher Nick Routt to eat up innings in today’s noon finale but the southpaw hasn’t gone longer than 3 2/3 innings in any of his three starts since coming back from a severe elbow injury.
“We’d like to get five or six innings out of him but you’ve got (freshman left-hander Luis) Pollorena behind him and we have some other options,” Cohen said. “We’re in more of a bullpen situation (Sunday) than we were (Saturday) and that’s why we were hoping Strat would get us deeper in the ballgame.”
With all the numbers being put up by the Florida offense, sophomore left-hander Brian Johnson (5-1) tossed an six-inning shutout for his first quality start in four attempts during league play. The 6-foot-3 235-pounder had a stretch of 20.2 scoreless innings to start the season putting him as a third-team preseason All-American honoree by Baseball America. Johnson also used the bat by going 1-for-3 after a multi-RBI day on Friday as the Gators designated hitter.
“It’s tough for him especially when he hits that inning to sustain short innings because it doesn’t give him a whole lot of time to get his feet back under him,” O’Sullivan said.
Neither head coach had much comment on a heated discussion that took place after the game following Bulldogs leadoff hitter C.T. Bradford being hit in the back by Florida senior reliever Matt Campbell in the bottom of the ninth. Bradford, the 2010 Mr. Baseball selection in the state of the Florida, had some words for the Gators dugout as he slowly trotted to first base getting the umpires and coaches attention before play was restarted.
“It was about some things that happened in the game, it wasn’t argumentative in any way,” Cohen said. “When you get into competitive situation, things are said and you want to makes sure they’re cleaned up in the end.”
Mississippi State will try to salvage the series today when they play the rubber game at noon and will see right-hander Karsten Whitson. The freshman from Chipley, Fla., turned down $2.1 million from the San Diego Padres last summer after being selected ninth overall in the 2010 MLB amateur draft.