Johnson's Slam Lifts Gators

Johnson's Slam Lifts Gators

HOOVER, Ala.- There wasn't a player or coach that thought it was fair. Brian Johnson even turned around to pick up his bat. The sophomore took one more look to the sky in right field to make sure, only to see the ball curving inside the foul pole for a grand slam that gave the No. 2 Gators a lead. Florida held on for a 7-5 win over Mississippi State in the first round of the SEC Tournament.

"When I first hit it, I thought it was going way right (of the right field foul pole)," Johnson said. "I remembered the wind was blowing out to left, so when I looked up, it was staying as straight as an arrow. I just started running."

He didn't even need to do that. The ball cleared the fence to give Florida a 6-5 lead only an inning after the Bulldogs scored three runs of their own. The entire Florida dugout shared Johnson's initial sense of frustration when the grand slam looked foul.

Players launched themselves on the top rail of the dugout, trying to push the ball fair and over the fence. It worked.

"I was hoping it wasn't foul," said Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan, who was wearing No. 48 instead of his normal No. 7 that he left in Gainesville. "I knew the wind was blowing strong, and once the ball stayed in the air, I knew it had a chance."

It looked like a punt off the foot of a kicker trying to pin the opponent deep in its own territory. The hang time had the Florida players staring at the ball for what seemed like minutes before it snuck over the Vanderbilt Commodores logo on the right field wall.

The four-run inning for the Gators started without taking the bat off their shoulders. Bryson Smith was hit in the back with a pitch to reach base, and Preston Tucker earned a walk after that. Mississippi State head coach John Cohen then brought left-handed reliever Luis Pollorena into the game, and he allowed a single to SEC Player of the Year Mike Zunino to load the bases with no outs.

Cohen thought it was minimal damage because he still had a left-hander in to face the left-handed-hitting Johnson. He knew that Pollorena would throw strikes, something his pitching staff struggled to do in earlier innings. The Mississippi State staff walked seven and hit one Florida batter. Eight free base runners were bound to catch up with the Bulldogs at some point, and it did with Johnson's grand slam.

"It was one swing of the bat where the ball starts out foul and comes back fairs," Cohen said. "The home run isn't the issue. It's how those base runners got on second and third there, and that was pretty much the ball game."

It was a mix-and-match game on the mound for the Gators. The strategy didn't work much in midweek games this season, but it was enough to hold the Bulldogs down and let the offense do the rest of the work.

Tommy Toledo started the game and lasted 2.2 innings. He looked to be out of the third inning without giving up any runs, but center fielder Bryson Smith misplayed a fly ball and it dropped over his head for a two-run triple.

Nick Maronde came in relief to throw three innings and allow one run on a solo home run by Nick Vickerson. Greg Larson and Steven Rodriguez combined to allow two runs in 2.1 innings. O'Sullivan was unsure of who to throw in the ninth inning, but Austin Maddox made the decision for him.

"When we made the last out in the bottom of the eighth, (Maddox) didn't give me any time to make a decision," O'Sullivan said with a laugh. "He just told me, ‘I'm starting it in the ninth.' He's a competitor."

Florida second baseman Josh Adams went 2-for-4 at the plate, moving into a tie for second in all-time hits at Florida with David Eckstein.

The Gators move on to play Alabama Thursday at 5:30 EST. O'Sullivan didn't announce a starting pitcher, but the Crimson Tide will start junior left-hander Adam Morgan, who allowed four runs in 6.1 innings during a loss to the Gators earlier this season.

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