On a night on which Suzanne Yoculan's Gym Dogs held down the fort by winning their fourth straight national title on their home floor, David Perno's Diamond Dogs took their show on the road, traveling to Gainesville to take on a Gator squad that held the league lead early before fading. On the opening night of a crucial S.E.C. series, Georgia emerged victorious by a 7-4 final margin.
The contest, which featured three of the 50 nationwide candidates recently named to the watch list for the 2008 Dick Howser Trophy (Georgia's Gordon Beckham and Joshua Fields and Florida's Josh Adams), became a slugfest early when Matt Olson sent a first-pitch single into center field after Ryan Peisel led off the top of the initial inning by taking a called third strike on a payoff pitch. Beckham's ensuing base hit advanced the Bulldog right fielder to second and Rich Poythress walked on four straight pitches to load the bases for Bryce Massanari.
The Red and Black designated hitter knocked a single to right field to score Olson and a subsequent sacrifice fly by Lyle Allen plated Beckham. Although Joey Lewis gazed at a called third strike in the next at-bat, the visitors had taken an early 2-0 lead in a three-hit turn at the plate. Trevor Holder, meanwhile, retired the side in sequence in the home half of the canto.
After a second stanza in which neither squad produced a baserunner, Olson led off the top of the third frame by driving a home run down the right field line. This was followed by a double from Beckham, a single from Poythress, and a home run from Massanari to make it 6-0. Allen finally recorded the first out of the inning before Lewis sent a first-pitch single to center field and Matt Cerione put a first-pitch double into the outfield to move the Georgia catcher over to third.
Florida left fielder Avery Barnes went two for three from the leadoff spot on Friday night, but he wasn't able to beat Georgia on the baseball diamond any more than he was able to beat J.R. Ewing in the oil business back in the '70s.
Unfortunately, the Diamond Dogs were unable to bring home an additional run, as, after Michael Demperio walked on four pitches to load the bases, Peisel grounded into a double play. Bryson Barber led off the bottom of the stanza by turning the first pitch he saw into a bunt single, but Buddy Munroe grounded into a double play and Jonathan Pigott struck out looking to conclude the canto with no damage done.
Beckham was plunked with one out away in the visitors' half of the fourth frame, but his teammates were unable to advance him beyond first base, so the door was left open for Florida to begin mounting a comeback in the bottom of the inning. Avery Barnes began the proceedings by doubling down the left field line. Matt den Dekker's ensuing groundout moved the Gator left fielder over to third, from which a Cole Figueroa single scored him. Adams's subsequent single was made moot by Brandon McArthur's double-play ball in the next at-bat.
Lewis was the only player for either team to notch an at-bat in the fifth canto which produced anything other than an out, but the sixth stanza began with a bang when Peisel belted the first pitch of the top of the inning into left field for a double. After Olson grounded out, Beckham drove another double to left field to score Peisel. Outs in the next two at-bats stranded the Georgia shortstop, but the Classic City Canines had built up a 7-1 advantage.
A one-out base hit by Barnes in the home half of the frame was negated when den Dekker grounded into a double play and a one-out base hit by Lewis in the top of the following inning likewise went for naught when Cerione and Demperio registered outs. The bottom of the seventh stanza seemed destined to be similarly uneventful when the first two Florida batters were retired, but the next three Gators to enter the batter's box tacked on a trio of runs on an equal number of hits.
Gator center fielder Matt den Dekker went without a hit in three official at-bats, but at least this time he didn't go crazy and drive a Starfleet shuttlecraft into the maw of a giant planet-eating doomsday machine.
First McArthur dropped a double into center field. Jon Townsend put the next pitch into the same location for a run-scoring single. Barber put the next pitch out to right field to bring home two more before Hampton Tignor struck out swinging to conclude the canto with the lead having been narrowed to 7-4.
The Red and Black looked like they might have an answer in the top of the eighth frame, but they never managed to put it together. Peisel led off with a base hit, but Olson grounded into a double play. Beckham walked and stole second, but Poythress flied out on a payoff pitch.
The home half of the stanza began with a Bulldog pitching switch, as Holder hit the showers after going seven innings, facing 26 batters, collecting four strikeouts, issuing no walks, giving up eight hits, and allowing four earned runs. Alex McRee took over on the mound and he began his time there well enough, inducing Pigott to fly out on the first pitch thrown his way.
Matters began to unravel a bit thereafter. Barnes took first base on a catcher's interference and advanced to second when den Dekker walked on a payoff pitch. When Figueroa parked a base hit in center field to load the bases and bring the go-ahead run to the plate, Coach Perno declined to take any chances, opting to send his closer to the mound an out or two earlier than usual.
Not that kind of closer.
Fields sneaked a called third strike by Adams on an 0-2 pitch and persuaded Clayton Pisani to swing at strike three to strand three baserunners. After a leadoff single by Massanari to kick off the visitors' half of the ninth inning was squandered when Allen lined into a double play, Fields returned to the mound and did what he came to do without unnecessary effort.
In the bottom of the frame, Townsend struck out looking on an 0-2 pitch then Barber struck out swinging on an 0-2 pitch. Tignor went down swinging on Fields's 20th pitch of the night, giving the Red and Black closer his fifth strikeout of the game and his twelfth save of the season.
Obviously, the hero of the evening was Bryce Massanari, who drove in four runs in the course of going three for five at the plate. The top of the order was productive, as Ryan Peisel, Matt Olson, and Gordon Beckham combined to go seven for 13 and drive in a pair of runs, but the last three hitters in the Georgia lineup (Joey Lewis, Matt Cerione, and Michael Demperio) managed to go four for twelve and draw a walk, which isn't much, but it is progress, after a fashion.
Although the Saurians played errorless ball, the Classic City Canines out-hit their hosts by a 15-9 margin and the Georgia pitching staff once again gave the Red and Black quality innings from the starter followed by scoreless innings from the bullpen. Florida hitters struck out nine times while walking only once.
The sign said "don't walk."
As usual, there was some cause for trepidation, inasmuch as the Diamond Dogs left nine men on base, but that concern was somewhat ameliorated by the fact that only two of those stranded baserunners remained on the basepaths during the scoreless last three innings.
Georgia improved to 29-12-1 overall (including 10-4-1 on the road) and 15-3-1 in Southeastern Conference play (including 9-1 against the division), while Florida fell to 10-9 in league outings. Although Vanderbilt beat Kentucky to give the Commodores an 11-7 ledger against S.E.C. opposition, other results in the Eastern Division were favorable for the Diamond Dogs, as Tennessee was defeated in extra innings and L.S.U. hammered South Carolina, with the result that the Volunteers and the Gamecocks now sport conference records of 10-9 and 11-8, respectively.
Eleven of the 13 games remaining on the Diamond Dogs' slate are league clashes, so it still is much too early yet to be counting on anything, but, after the Red and Black have gone on an 11-0-1 run in their last dozen conference contests, it is difficult not to believe that this Georgia squad can continue to fare well in S.E.C. play, and beyond.