Down 7-4 in the eighth inning, the Gators appeared to be down for the count in both the game and contention for the SEC regular season title. Vanderbilt appeared to be well on their way to a series clinching victory, and in great position to clinch the SEC regular season title.
Then again, things aren’t always what they appear to be. And if you ever count this Gator team out of anything, you’d better be prepared to be disappointed. Kevin O’Sullivan learned this lesson in a pleasant way today, while the 8th ranked Commodores learned it the hard way.
The resilient Gators scored six runs in the final four innings of play, including the game’s last five runs to win 9-7 in 10 innings Saturday afternoon in Nashville. The win gives Florida (38-14 overall, 17-10 SEC) the 2-1 series win over Vandy.
In a meeting between two of the nation’s top teams, the Gators prevailed on the road with a little bit of everything — timely defense, dominant (at times) pitching, and clutch hitting. Not only does this crucial series victory propel Florida to just one game out of first place in the East, it greatly improves the Gators’ chances of taking one of the eight national seeds when the NCAA Tournament comes along. No. 9 Florida would now own the tiebreaker over the Commodores in the SEC standings should the teams wind up tied, and even if Vandy ends up with the better record, you’d have to think the NCAA Tournament committee would give Florida a national seed over Vandy (barring a complete collapse in the season ending series against Auburn) because of the head to head series win. Especially after today’s extra-inning victory continued the Gators’ hot streak.
Florida came to Nashville Thursday night with a three-game winning streak under its belt, but struggled to get things going in game one of the series. Pitching, notably Vandy’s, was the talk of Thursday’s game as Florida was promptly shutout. The Commodores’ Carson Fulmer threw a staggering 124 pitches over nine scoreless innings and secure a 2-0 victory, and to out-duel Florida’s Logan Shore — who did everything in his power to keep the Gators within range all game. It turns out the Gators were saving their bats for later, but that didn’t do UF any good at that time.
Shore gave up just one run Thursday night in seven innings, striking out five, but Vanderbilt’s defense was just relentless in protecting its lead. The Gators could never seriously threaten.
This made for an important matchup Friday night in Nashville. If the Gators were going to keep their SEC and National Championship aspirations on life support, a game-two victory was almost mandatory. You couldn’t dig yourself in an 0-2 hole with another game on the horizon.
But Florida’s bats woke up, as JJ Schwarz and Harrison Bader (#1 and #2 in RBI for Florida, respectively) smacked early home runs to give the Gators a 5-2 lead after five innings. It was Schwarz’s 14th HR of the year- not bad for a freshman.
The Gators responded well overall, racking up seven runs on 10 hits and Vandy would never come close. Florida won 7-3 after taking a five-run advantage into the 8th inning. Even with all the run support, however, starting pitcher A.J. Puk had to be the story of the game. His performance arguably led to such a fiery effort from his teammates.
Puk gave up two early runs, and then flipped his switch to dominant mode for the rest of the night. In seven innings of work, Puk struck out 12 Commodores and retired the last nine batters he faced — six of those nine by way of strikeout.
This made for a decisive game three, with both teams showing the importance of the game and this implications early on. Florida’s Buddy Reed nailed a 3-run HR to left field in the first to give the Gators an early advantage, only to watch Vandy come right back with homers in the first, third, and fifth inning to give the Commodores a 4-3 lead.
The small lead developed into a commanding lead in the seventh, as Vandy took advantage of a Florida error (Florida committed a season-high four) and Will Toffey roped a two-run double in the bottom half of the inning. This is where the resilience, a word that gets tossed around all over sports, really showed up with these Gators. Kevin O’Sullivan’s team, the defending SEC Champs, simply wouldn’t quit.
Scoring two in the eighth off a JJ Schwarz triple and a Ryan Larson single, the Gator defense responded to keep the game at 7-6 heading into the ninth. Vandy put runners on base in their bottom half of the eight, but third baseman Josh Tobias handled a hard hit ball to end the inning.
Down a run in the ninth, the Gators struck with a two-out rally, sending their dugout into a frenzy when JJ Schwarz single brought Buddy Reed home to tie the game. Momentum had shifted, Florida’s defense made quick work of Vandy in the bottom of the ninth, and you just had the feeling that the Gators wouldn’t be stopped.
Dalton Guthrie got on base with a one-out double, and managed to score when the next batter, Richie Martin nailed a single to left field. What followed after Martin’s connection with the ball was as fortunate as it was stunning for the Gators — Vandy’s left fielder did an impressive job of handling Martin’s line-drive, but apparently lost control of the ball as he attempted to reach his second baseman. Instead, he floated a ball toward no one in particular that ended up in the Gator dugout, which scored Guthrie and allowed Martin to take third. After a Tobias sac-fly, Martin would score and the Gators took a 9-7 lead into the bottom of the 10th.
RP Taylor Lewis (4-1) would keep it that way, as he closed the Commodores out in the bottom half of the inning, and sent the Gators back to Gainesville with even more confidence and momentum than they brought into this series. And being a top ten team heading into this series, that was a lot of confidence they brought into this series.
Now the Gators trail by just a single game in the SEC Eastern Division (and the SEC) with three games left in the regular season. Again, though, what’s more important is the impact this series will have in the selection of the eight national Seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Florida looks like not only a viable, but a deserving candidate now.
Florida will return back home for a three game series with the Auburn Tigers starting Thursday, before SEC Tournament games begin in Hoover.