- Mike DiRocco, ESPN Staff Writer
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida's baseball team is loaded with veteran players who made it to the College World Series final last season. But coach Kevin O'Sullivan still wasn't sure what to expect on the field against Cal State Fullerton Friday night.
And when the top-ranked Gators were locked in a 3-3 tie entering the bottom of the seventh inning in front of a McKethan Stadium opening day-record crowd of 5,356, O'Sullivan really got nervous.
Three singles, two walks, a hit batter, a sacrifice fly, and 15 minutes later, O'Sullivan felt much better. The Gators scored four runs and went on to beat the 16th-ranked Titans 7-3.
"I think there was a lot of anxiousness to get the season started, but I did not sense any panic in the dugout, and it was kind of neat to see because I really didn't know how they would respond [in a] 3-3 ballgame through six," O'Sullivan said. "But they stayed calm. They stayed cool under pressure."
Daniel Pigott drove in the go-ahead run when he got hit by a pitch on the left forearm with the bases loaded, Preston Tucker drove in another with a sacrifice fly, and Mike Zunino and Brian Johnson followed with back-to-back RBI singles. Pigott and Tucker are seniors, Johnson and Zunino are juniors, and all four were key pieces of Florida's CWS run last season. But O'Sullivan still worried about them because of the expectations placed up on the team in 2012.
"You just don't know [how they'll respond]," O'Sullivan said. "All they've been hearing for the last month or so [is how great the team is and how they're expected to win a national title]. We've got to play on the field. All this preseason stuff doesn't mean anything. As much as you tell them, you've just got to start playing games and you've got to get through a good weekend like this and hopefully play well, but you don't know. You try to do the best you can to prepare your team, but you just don't know. But I thought they handled it outstanding tonight."
Tucker, who drove in another run on a sixth-inning homer, said the Gators weren't worried like their coach. He said they just figured they'd eventually string a few hits together once Fullerton starter Dylan Floro left the game. He did after the Gators loaded the bases with one out on a single by Josh Tobias and walks by Casey Turgeon and Nolan Fontana.
Freshman reliever Jose Cardona's collegiate debut lasted just four batters, and by the time he left the Gators were ahead 7-3.
"We've been swinging it well all spring [in workouts]," said Tucker, who is now four RBIs shy of tying Brad Wilkerson's school record of 214. "Obviously it's a little different facing somebody else, but we got a few ABs in, the nerves settled in, and we started putting the barrel on the ball."
That the rally came against a quality opponent is just as important to O'Sullivan as the fact the Gators (1-0) won the game and improved to 5-0 in season-openers in his tenure.
"We need to be challenged right off the bat," O'Sullivan said. "For this team in particular I think we need to play a really, well-coached, talented team. That's what this team needs this weekend. It'll make us better in the long run."
And ease his worries a bit, too.