GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The climb to the top was official the moment Gators right fielder Ryan Larson squeezed a fly ball hit by Ole Miss shortstop Grae Kessinger in his glove late Sunday afternoon, sealing Florida's 6-4 win.
With that catch, the Gators are somewhere they haven't been all season -- alone in first place in the Southeastern Conference East Division.
Florida capped a three-game sweep of Ole Miss at sun-splashed McKethan Stadium with its ninth consecutive victory, and coupled with Kentucky's 6-3 loss to Georgia, it vaulted the Gators (35-13, 16-8) in front of the Wildcats (32-16, 15-9) in the East.
"It was a really complete weekend,'' Gators head coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "We played good defense, we swung the bats well against the best pitching staff top to bottom, statistically, in the league. We put ourselves in a nice position."
The Gators now own a one-game lead in the division with six SEC games to go, including a three-game home series against the Wildcats on May 18-20 to close the regular season.
That's a long way from where the Gators started. In their first SEC series of the season, they were swept at Auburn in mid-March. Florida has remained within striking distance of Kentucky all season, never falling more than three games back, but not until Sunday did they overtake the Wildcats.
Florida's sweep of the Rebels, who entered the weekend leading the SEC in team ERA and ranked in the top 10 nationally in four major categories, was defined by the Gators' recharged lineup.
"We've always been that team, we haven't clicked yet,'' third baseman Jonathan India said. "Now we're clicking."
UF hit .343 (34-for-99) in the series and outscored the Rebels 24-10. The Gators were at their best with two outs, finishing with 13 runs and 12 hits in the three games when there were two outs.
India's solo home run in the third inning gave UF an early lead against the Rebels on Sunday. India, who returned to the lineup on Friday as the DH after missing 10 games due to an elbow injury, returned to the field in the final game of the series.
Meanwhile, Ole Miss countered with a run in the top of the fourth, but in the bottom of the inning, Nelson Maldonado's RBI single and a RBI sacrifice fly by Mark Kolozsvary gave Florida a 3-1 lead. Ryan Larson led off the fifth with a solo homer and by the time the inning was over, the Gators had chased Rebels starter David Parkinson and led 6-1.
Larson's fifth home run was a no-doubter well over the left-field bleachers and sparked a three-run inning that included an RBI double from Christian Hicks.
"It was a fastball and I knew I hit it good,'' Larson said. "With this wind [blowing out], kind of anything can happen. It's something we saw in the fall, when we have everyone, how potent this lineup can be."
Bolstered by a 6-1 lead, UF starter Jackson Kowar improved to 8-0, tossing 6 2/3 innings. He allowed six hits and two runs while walking one and striking out three. Sophomore closer Michael Byrne recorded the final five outs of the game for his 13th save, which ties Shaun Anderson (2016), Josh Fogg (1998) and Danny Wheeler (1994) for the single-season school record.
Byrne opened the season as a midweek starter but has played an instrumental role in shoring up the bullpen, considered the team's biggest unknown at the start of the season.
"That's a pretty cool accomplishment I guess,'' Byrne said. "I've never done it before. It's definitely different, but it's working so far. I'm getting the job done I guess, and we're getting wins. That's all I can ask for."
Ole Miss rallied to trim the lead to 6-4 entering the ninth. After Byrne issued a rare walk to Thomas Dillard to open the inning, center fielder Nick Horvath, inserted into the game for defensive purposes by O'Sullivan, chased down a long fly ball by Bryan Seamster that could have put the tying runs on base.
"I'm not sure we have many other people on our team who can make that play,'' O'Sullivan said.
Byrne finished off the Rebels from there. Twenty-four games into the SEC schedule, the Gators were finally in first in the East and tied with Mississippi State for first overall.
"He's done a heck of a job for us,'' O'Sullivan said. "He throws strikes. If you beat him, you've got to beat him. He doesn't beat himself. I can't say enough about his effort and what he has been able to do for us at the end of the game."