The Gators were three outs from returning to Omaha and the College World Series in back-to-back years for the first time in school history.
But Mississippi State (38-24) had other plans for Florida (49-17).
Trailing by a run in the bottom of the ninth inning, Mississippi State second baseman Nick Vickerson ripped the first pitch of his at-bat over the left-field fence for a two-run, walk-off homer, giving the Bulldogs a 4-3 win and forcing a third and deciding game in the Gainesville Super Regional.
“I didn’t know if I got it up enough,” Vickerson said. “I knew it wasn’t going to get caught. I didn’t see it, but I heard it hit the fence, that back fence, and just saw everybody come onto the field.”
Bulldogs’ third baseman Jarrod Parks led off the bottom of the final frame with a single just under sophomore shortstop Nolan Fontana’s glove on a 1-1 count.
The Gators decided to pull reliever Nick Maronde from the game, putting in sophomore lefty Stephen Rodriguez (L 3-2, 2.01 ERA).
He only threw one pitch.
“Heart sank a little bit,” Florida senior second baseman Josh Adams said. “We’ve got to come out tomorrow and play. That’s the way we’re going to look at it. We’re going to come out and try to achieve our goal.”
Florida controlled the game through the early innings, as freshman right-hander Karsten Whitson worked a one-hitter through the first six innings.
The Gators scored first in the top of the third inning when sophomore third baseman Cody Dent led off the inning with an infield single to shortstop.
Senior center fielder Bryson Smith roped an 0-2 pitch to the gap in right-center field for a double to put runners at second and third for Florida with no outs.
Sophomore shortstop Nolan Fontana then hit a sacrifice fly to left field to score Dent and put Florida up 1-0.
Adams put Florida up 2-0 in the top of the fourth inning when he led off the inning with a shot just over the right-field fence on a 1-0 pitch.
Whitson cut down 12 straight Bulldogs batters between the third and the seventh innings before running into trouble with one out in the bottom of the seventh.
“I thought he was outstanding,” head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “He did exactly what I hoped he would do, and probably more so. I thought he pitched his heart out.”
With one out in the bottom of the seventh, Saturday’s hero for the Bulldogs, Vickerson, led a Mississippi State rally to tie the game, singling to shortstop on a ball that just got under Dent’s outstretched glove.
Whitson then gave up a single to right field on a 1-2 pitch. The Bulldogs battled their way back into the game in the next at-bat after designated hitter Cody Freeman punched an RBI single to right field on a full count to cut the Florida lead to 2-1.
“I felt good,” Whitson said. “I was making good pitches. You’ve got to tip your hat to their hitters. They were just battling, and the ball just found the holes.”
After the Bulldogs cut the lead to 2-1 on the three consecutive singles, O’Sullivan decided to put junior Tommy Toledo into the game.
Toledo gave up an RBI single to center field to tie the game at 2-2 before slamming the door shut with a grounder to third for an inning-ending double play.
Florida sophomore catcher Mike Zunino sparked a go-ahead top of the eighth for the Gators when he launched a 1-1 pitch off the wall in right field for a double.
With two outs, junior left fielder Tyler Thompson put the Gators up 3-2 when he drove a 1-2 pitch just over the center fielder’s head for a stand-up, RBI triple.
After Florida went quietly in the top of the ninth, Mississippi State wasted no time getting to work in the bottom half for the win, silencing the crowd of 4,223.
“It’s not fun,” Whitson said. “You hate to lose, especially a big game like that.”
Whitson pitched 6.1 innings and gave up just two runs on four hits.
But the Florida bats that have carried the Gators through the postseason weren’t as lively with runners on base, and Florida stranded nine runners.
The inability to put the game out of reach cost Florida in the end.
“I never really had that feeling like we were going to break the game open,” Adams said. “Mississippi State battles, and we knew it was going to be a battle from the beginning … I really didn’t feel comfortable out there at all.”
Florida hit Mississippi State starter Nick Routt well, racking up seven hits and two runs as Routt came out of the game after throwing 3.2 innings.
Mississippi State coach John Cohen put closer Caleb Reed (W 1-1, 3.92 ERA) in, and Florida just couldn’t seem to figure him out.
“He’s an all-conference pitcher in this league for a reason,” O’Sullivan said. “Whoever plays better tomorrow will move on. Tomorrow’s a whole new ball game.”
With the NCAA Super Regional now knotted at 1-1, the winner of Sunday’s game at 1 p.m. on ESPN will advance to the College World Series 2011.
Neither team had decided on a starting pitcher following the conclusion of Saturday’s game.
Florida is still waiting on sophomore left-hander Brian Johnson (concussion) to get medical clearance after O’Sullivan said he was not cleared to play on Saturday.
If Johnson (8-3, 3.66 ERA) is cleared to play, he could be an option for Florida on the mound. The other more likely starter is junior left-hander Alex Panteliodis (6-2, 3.76 ERA).
Sophomore Austin Maddox also remains day to day for the Gators after suffering a foot sprain last week in the Gainesville Regional.
Florida will be the home team after winning a coin toss following Saturday’s game.
“Just like I said yesterday, none of those runs carried into today,” O’Sullivan said. “And that momentum that Mississippi State (has) doesn’t carry into tomorrow, either. The bottom line is whoever plays the best tomorrow will move on.”