HOOVER, ALABAMA — Seventh ranked South Carolina snuffed a Florida rally and put an end to the Gators season with a 5-3 victory in Southeastern Conference Baseball action Friday afternoon. The situation was almost made perfect for a Gators comeback. Florida (29-30) trailed by two and had runners on the corners with 2007 SEC Player of the Year Matt LaPorta on deck when Avery Barnes was thrown out on a ground ball to third base.
In many ways, the game mirrored the Gators season long struggles- competitive play, a no quit attitude, but left on the outside looking in as their own mistakes cost them the taste of victory.
Florida got off to an aggressive start against South Carolina today at the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Leadoff hitter Cole Figueroa slapped a single just out of the reach of Gamecocks second baseman Travis Jones. He easily stole second on Carolina starter Mike Cisco’s first offering to Avery Barnes. The Gators played a little small ball with Barnes laying down a bunt to move Figueroa to third. However, LaPorta didn’t need it. He deposited a 2-2 pitch over the left field fence to give the Gators a 2-0 advantage.
South Carolina answered in the bottom of the second. Designated hitter Phil Disher singled to left. Florida starter Patrick Keating walked Trent Kline after running the count full. Center fielder Andrew Crisp then laid the first pitch down toward third base. Right fielder Harvey Lail promptly slapped the ball into left field, scoring Disher. Keating fanned Cheyne Hurst for the first out of the inning. He then got Reese Havens then smashed a ball on a rope to first base, which LaPorta snagged and dove to touch the bag for the double play. However, he just missed and those inches would prove costly.
Former Lake City Community College player Travis Jones smacked a single through the left side gap, which allowed both Kline and Crisp to score. South Carolina took a 3-2 lead.
Carolina (42-17) scored two unearned runs in the sixth, which helped seal the Gators fate. With one out and Keating looking pretty impressive, Crisp reached on a throwing error by shortstop Cole Figueroa. Crisp advanced to second on the errant throw. Lail followed with a single to center. Crisp came home on the play when Matt den Dekker failed to come up with the ball cleanly. After pinch hitter Robbie Grinestaff escaped on a full count. McMahon went to senior Stephen Porter who got shortstop Reese Havens to ground out back to the mound advancing the runners. With two outs, Travis Jones was intentionally wlaked to load the bases and get the force into play.
McMahon came back out to the mound and called on right hander Josh Edmondson to pitch to the right handed James Darnell. However, Edmondson ran the count full and walked in the Gamecocks fifth run of the contest.
The Gators mounted a two out rally in the top of the ninth. Bryson Barber walked. Cody Neer then walked on four consecutive pitches. Figueroa then ripped a single into right field that scored Barber and closed the gap to 5-3. Barnes just missed finding the hole and LaPorta was not able to get one last opportunity.
Keating pitched 5.1 innings and allowed eight hits and three earned runs. He struck out five and held Carolina in check in the first, third, and fourth innings. He seemingly was on his way to doing the same in the fifth, until the errors occurred.
Freshman Kevin Chapman pitche the final 2.1 innings in relief and allowed just one hit. He struck out one and gave the Gators an opportunity to come back for the rally.
Mike Cisco (6-2) picked up the win for Carolina. Cisco worked seven innings and allowed four hits and two earned runs, while striking out eight.
So what next?
Obviously, Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley will meet with head coach Pat McMahon just as he does at the end of every season and determine if McMahon is the man for the job.
McMahon’s critics will lay much of the blame at his and the feet of his assistant coaches. Like it or not, there is a lot of youth on this Florida squad. There is a lot of returning talent and even more on arrival for the spring of 2008. Young players make mistakes and have to grow up in the game. Furthermore, many of the veterans didn’t play up to their potential or were unable to deliver in certain situations. Injuries always play a role in the season. Other times the ball was put into play, but simply didn’t find the hole. And oftentimes, at least some credit should be given to the opposition for making the play.
The bottom line is that there is truth in all of the above.
One of the key decisions Foley will make concerns the direction of the program. Off the field, It’s doubtful that you’ll meet a better role model and a man with more character than Pat McMahon. There is no question that McMahon is the epitome’ of decency and is very deserving of our respect for the way he, his coaches, and players have carried themselves as representatives of the University of Florida.
On the field, the league coaches picked the Gators to finish last in the Eastern Division. They competed and finished ahead of those projections. They made the conference tournament and came within one or two victories of securing an NCAA Regional bid. All while playing the nation’s toughest schedule.
Then there are those all important W’s. The overall record in six years at Florida is 231-143-1 (.616). McMahon guided the Gators to the national championship game two years ago with a 48-23, 20-10 record. The Gators are 57-58, 25-35 since that appearance.
Many are eager to hear Jeremy Foley’s thoughts on the issue and as often is the case- there are seats on both sides of the aisle.