(Photo via @GatorsBB, Gator baseball media team)
For the Gator baseball team, this past weekend was cathartic in a variety of ways.
Demons were exorcized. Redemption was earned. Curses were shattered. And for the first time in Condron Ballpark’s young history, the Florida Gators won their NCAA Baseball Regional and advanced to the Super Regionals.
Thanks to dominant pitching performances from Hurston Waldrep and Cade Fisher on Sunday and Ryan Slater and Brandon Neely on Monday, the Gator baseball team came off the mat and pounded Texas Tech twice in a row, 7-1 and 6-0, to claim the Gainesville Regional.
It’s the first time Florida has won its own Regional since the old McKethan Stadium was torn down in favor of Florida Ballpark (soon after renamed Condron Ballpark). The Gators were swept out of their own Regional in humiliating fashion by South Florida and South Alabama in 2021, and last year pushed Oklahoma to a final game out of the loser’s bracket before losing 5-4.
This year was different.
Back go the Gators to the Super Regionals for the first time since 2018, although the program as a whole is hardly a stranger to that stage. The Gators made eight Super Regionals from 2009 through 2018- and won seven of them. They’ll face South Carolina on Friday night at 6 in the opener of the best-of-three series. Game two is Saturday at 3, and game three would be Sunday.
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Florida’s bats went silent in the opener following a Josh Rivera home run, but Jac Caglianone was terrific on the mound and that was all Florida would need in a 3-0 victory over Florida A&M to begin the Regional. The next night, though, Florida’s bats again failed to produce against Texas Tech. Late in a 3-3 game, Ryan Slater gave up a two-run homer to Gavin Kash, and that proved to be the difference in a 5-4 loss to the Red Raiders that sent the Gators to their own Regional’s loser’s bracket for the third year in a row.
That set the Gators up with the following scenario: win three games in a row, or their season would end. Had they beaten Texas Tech the first time, they would have had two shots to win one more game and advance. Thus, by virtue of the Saturday night loss to the Red Raiders, the Gator baseball team was forced to do it the hard way.
First up was Connecticut on Sunday. The game was tied at one apiece until Wyatt Langford gave Florida the lead for good with a sac fly, and moments later, Jac Caglianone- who two innings earlier had forgotten how many outs there were and ran himself into a free out by sprinting around the bases on a fly ball- more than redeemed himself and broke it open with a three run homer. Florida also got a great start from Hurston Waldrep and cruised to an 8-2 win.
Later that day was the 2-0 vs. 2-1 game, with Florida being the team needing to win twice and Texas Tech having two chances to win one game. A rain delay pushed the game time back by 90 minutes, forcing the Gator baseball team to gnash its collective teeth and stew for a little while longer. For five innings, the Gators and Red Raiders remained locked in a scoreless tie, and the tension began to build up at Condron Ballpark.
But then in the sixth inning- a break came Florida’s way. Texas Tech’s entire outfield lost a routine fly ball in the lights off the bat of Cade Kurland, and that turned into a ground rule double. Moments later, Caglianone- who was later voted Gainesville Regional MVP- gave Florida the lead with a single through the first base side. From there, the floodgates opened; a Texas Tech throwing error following by a Tyler Shelnut RBI single made it 4-0 Gators in the blink of an eye.
Meanwhile, on the other side of things, Cade Fisher threw the game of his life. The Gator reliever had never thrown more than four innings at once at Florida but removed that disclaimer from his resume as he hurled seven innings of shutout ball. He departed in the eighth with two runners on, turning the ball over to Brandon Neely. Neely closed the game out and Florida added three more runs on another Texas Tech error and a Langford 2-RBI double to conclude the scoring in Florida’s 7-1 win.
And the win was made all the more impressive given that it came despite one of the most blunderful exhibitions of how not to run the bases in recent memory. With runners on second and third, a routine ground ball resulted in not one but both runners being thrown out at home plate. Hesitance and awareness of the location of the baseball could have avoided the issue, but that wasn’t what happened.
Such a cataclysmic sequence could have sunken a team. Instead, Florida simply regrouped, rebounded, and re-launched its rally, somehow managing to plate two runs in that inning after the miscue. And the Gators never looked back from there.
That set up a winner-take-all Regional final on Monday- a game that turned into a redemption story for several players, and the team as a whole.
Slater was the losing pitcher in the first Texas Tech game, as he gave up the home run that gave Texas Tech the lead it would not relinquish. It matters not the last that Florida’s bats were more to blame than Slater was for the loss; official scoring has to assign a pitcher as the loser, and that was Slater. He also blew the save in the Regional final the previous year against Oklahoma, as Florida had a lead of less than four runs and Slater gave up the home run to Peyton Graham to tie the game, as well as the eventual winning runs for the Sooners.
BT Riopelle had had a fantastic week in Hoover at the SEC Tournament, but his bat had cooled off considerably since the start of Regional play. Leadoff hitter Cade Kurland had been in a slump for a few weeks, with a batting average of .326 heading into the regular season finale against Kentucky plummeting down to .302 heading into the Regional final. Third baseman Colby Halter, by all accounts a terrific fielder, had struggled at the plate for most of the year.
And Florida, of course, had been upset out of its own Regional two years in a row after a promising 2020 season was shot down by a pandemic, and was desperate to finally break through and undo so much premature season-ending angst.
It’s safe to say that redemption was earned and monkeys were ripped off of backs and ceremoniously beaten to dust on all counts.
Slater threw five extraordinary innings, keeping the Red Raiders off the scoreboard and rarely even being threatened. Riopelle launched not one but two two-run homers, giving Florida more than enough insurance on its side of the scoreboard. Halter collected a pair of hits, and though it didn’t lead to a run, Kurland banged out a base hit in his final at-bat for some confidence.
Because Florida scored early and often, the nerves of the game quickly vanished. After Slater departed, Philip Abner came in and, though he was a little wild out of the gate, regained his composure and kept the Red Raiders at bay for another two innings. From there, Brandon Neely came in and slammed the door shut, finishing the deal with a strikeout that sent the Gators flying over the dugout rail to celebrate.
But it was a muted celebration- because the Gators know they haven’t finished the mission yet. A Super Regional appearance against South Carolina is a solid accomplishment, but this program has established the precedent that nothing less than a trip to Omaha can be considered a success. So the dog pile will have to wait another week.
If this Gator baseball team has taught us anything, though, it’s that betting against their ability to celebrate its goals isn’t very smart.