GAINESVILLE, Fla.—The road from worst to first is complete.
The Florida Gators clinched a Southeastern Conference championship on Saturday afternoon with a 6-4 win over No. 7 Kentucky at McKethan Stadium.
The SEC title is the fourth in 10 years under head coach Kevin O'Sullivan. UF has now won 40 regular-season games six times under O'Sullivan.
Pitch. Out. Celebrate.#GatorsWin #SECChamps pic.twitter.com/aguL2dTQKx— Gators Baseball (@GatorsBB) May 21, 2017
After starting SEC play 0-3 when swept on the road at Auburn, the Gators won 16 of their final 19 league games to finish 21-9 in conference play. LSU capped a sweep of Mississippi State on Saturday to also finish 21-9 in the SEC.
Still, Florida (40-15, 21-9 SEC) clinched the No. 1 overall seed for next week's SEC Tournament and will play on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. ET in Hoover, Ala.
With the loss, Kentucky (38-18, 19-11 SEC) will be the No. 3 seed in the upcoming tournament.
Jackson Kowar and Nelson Maldonado had MVP-type performances on Saturday afternoon to propel the Gators to the victory.
Kowar started on the mound and limited the league's top offense to two runs over 6.1 innings. He improved to 10-0 on the season and 13-0 in his Florida career.
The Gators' most consistent hitter all season, Maldonado continued his hot streak with a 2-for-3 performance and career-tying four RBIs – including a three-run home run that gave Florida the lead in the fourth inning.
Kentucky opened the scoring in the first inning with a pair of doubles off Kowar. Luke Becker took a 1-2 pitch to left center for a two-out double to give the Wildcats a 1-0 lead.
The Wildcats added a run in the third with a couple of two-out hits. Evan White lined a ball to right just out of the reach of Maldonado for a double and Zach Reks' RBI single gave the visitors a two-run lead.
The game took a momentum swing in the bottom of the fourth inning.
The #Gators have now won FORTY regular season games under Sully SIX times in 10 seasons! pic.twitter.com/It67Fk3BjH— Gators Baseball (@GatorsBB) May 20, 2017
Dalton Guthrie led off and lined a ball off UK pitcher Justin Lewis' leg that bounced toward third base. Hustling down the line, Guthrie beat the throw but stepped awkwardly on the bag and went down holding his ankle.
After a brief delay, he was removed from the game due to injury and replaced by pinch runner Blake Reese.
Looking to pick up his teammate, JJ Schwarz stepped to the plate and lined a double to left center field to start a Gators rally and put a pair of runners in scoring position.
Maldonado followed Schwarz and hit a deep fly ball to right that just cleared the fence for his sixth home run of the season to give UF a 3-2 lead.
Florida added some insurance in the bottom of the fifth as Maldonado picked up his fourth RBI of the day, doubling home Ryan Larson from second.
Austin Langworthy made it 5-2 with a RBI groundout to short that scored Schwarz from third. Reese's RBI single with two outs in the sixth inning gave Florida a four-run lead through six innings.
The Wildcats threatened in the seventh inning but the Gators escaped with some clutch pitching out of the bullpen. Kowar allowed a one-out walk and was replaced by Frank Rubio, who got the ground ball that UF was looking for but it found the hole and reached center field.
Photo Gallery from today’s 6-4 win vs UK, by @TimCaseyPhoto & @ladydmendoza https://t.co/jD1Wm1bBf1 #GoGators #SECchamps pic.twitter.com/M3VTcyfaWV— Gators Baseball (@GatorsBB) May 20, 2017
Nick Horvath replaced Rubio with runners on the corners and got a liner to third base for the second out.
A hit batter loaded the bases for UK, but Horvath got a groundball to second base and Deacon Liput made the easy play to escape without any damage.
Kentucky made it interesting in the eighth inning. After a leadoff walk, Michael Byrne replaced Nick Horvath on the mound.
Marcus Carson then hit his fifth home run of the season to cut the Gators' lead to two runs, 6-4. The runs were the first allowed by Byrne since April 8 against Tennessee.
Byrne bounced back and struck out the next two batters to escape the eighth inning without any further damage.
He came back out for the ninth and retired the Wildcats in order to finish the game.