Preview: FSU travels to Gainesville for first road game of the year

Haylee Blitch

The Noles travel to Gainesville tonight, looking for their first win against the Gators since 2016. FSU has lost eight straight games to the Gators, and 13 of the last 14, but this is the year FSU could finally take back the state. So far this season, UF has gone just 2-4 in midweek games, while FSU has played just one, beating UNF 4-3 last Wednesday. Overall, the Gators are 13-5, while the Noles sit at 13-1. Mike Martin is coming off a historic 2000th career win on Saturday night, you can check the recap here, but he knows he has much more important business to deal with tonight. FSU is currently ranked #6 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll, one spot ahead of the Gators. The game is at 6:30, on SEC Network, here’s what you can expect from the rivalry tonight.

Martin is handing the ball to Conor Grady to start the game for the Noles. It will be Grady’s first career start, but the sophomore has dominated out of the pen for a while now. So far this season, Grady has thrown 11.2 innings, allowing just 2 runs. Last season, Conor threw 1 perfect inning against the Gators. Grady uses a low 90’s fastball and a sharp slider, one of the best in college baseball, to keep hitters from making hard contact. I would expect Grady to throw 3 innings before handing it over to the relievers. My guess is Martin is planning to throw Jonah Scolaro (2 innings), Clayton Kwiatkowski (2 innings), Chase Haney (1 inning), and JC Flowers (save) after Grady. Combined, those 4 pitchers have given up 4 runs in 31 innings this season. Haney has the most experience against the Gators, throwing 10.2 innings in 8 appearances. UF has yet to announce a starter, and it’s anybody’s guess who will take the hill to start the game for UF. In 6 midweek games this season, 6 different Gators have started on the hill and not one of those pitchers have gone past 3 innings. It will be a battle of the bullpens Tuesday night.

Offensively, each team has had significant turnover this season, as UF has 5 new starters and the Noles have 6 with Reese Albert currently sidelined with a sprained thumb. Each offense has been led by a team captain, a breakout sophomore, and a trio of freshmen. For UF, Senior captain Nelson Maldonado has led the way hitting .359 and slugging an impressive .594. SS Brady McConnell took over for Deacon Liput this year and has been on fire lately. McConnell is working a 14-game hitting streak currently, in which he has hit .412. Freshman Jacob Young has beat out Blake Reese for the starting 2B job and has torn it up since gaining the job, getting a hit in each of his starts. Young is currently on a 10-game hitting streak, hitting .439 in that span. Freshman CF Jud Fabian leads the Gators with 5 HR and is hitting .345 so far this year. Freshman 1B Kendrick Calilao has burst onto the scene this year, hitting .350 and getting on base 45.3% of the time. But UF has had a trio of returning stars struggle. Wil Dalton, Austin Langworthy, and Brady Smith are all hitting below .215 so far this season. If FSU pitchers can slow down Young and McConnell at the top of the order, it could be a successful night for the Noles.

As for FSU, 3B Drew Mendoza has been a tough out and producing all season long so far. Mendoza has reached base 51.6% of the time and is tied for the team lead with 5 HR’s. In 4 career games against UF, he has hit 4 extra base hits, including a HR, and batted .357. 1B/DH Cooper Swanson has been red hot lately, hitting 5 HR’s in his last 7 games. In total, Swanson has hit .333 on the season. Freshman Elijah Cabell has been the most impressive of the freshmen so far this season, blasting some mammoth HR’s and making highlight-reel grabs in the outfield. Cabell leads the team with a 1.334 OPS and is tied for the team lead in HR’s. SS Nander De Sedas has played superb defense so far this season, making just one error, and has also produced at the bottom of the order for the Noles. Nander has done a great job in the double leadoff, hitting .285 and reaching base 45.6% of the time. RF/DH Robby Martin has struggled recently but has still managed to hit .389 so far this season. If Martin can get his swing back, the depth of the Noles lineup will extend greatly.

Overall, there have been two major differences between these two rivals so far this season: defense and power. UF has had a .966 fielding percentage this year, making 1.3 errors per game, while FSU has had the number 1 defense in the nation, with a .990 fielding percentage and .36 errors per game. Recently, FSU hitters have struggled to put the ball in play, striking out a lot, but it is crucial for the Noles to put the ball in play tonight and make the Gators’ defense make plays. When you put the ball in play, good things happen. FSU has hit 7 more home runs than the Gators this season in 4 fewer games. FSU is 3rd in the country with 26 total home runs, led by the trio of Mendoza, Swanson, and Cabell. The Noles have power up and down the lineup and will need to put a ball or two out of McKethan Stadium tonight to drive back to Tallahassee with a win.

It will be FSU’s final game at Alfred A. McKethan Stadium, as the Gators are getting a new ballpark next season, and the Noles will try to leave a bad taste in the Gators’ mouths. In Mike Martin’s final season, I’m sure one of his goals is a series win vs. the Gators. Step one of that goal starts tonight as the Noles look to avenge 8 straight losses to the team from Gainesville. Let the fun begin.

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