They didn’t celebrate much when they won the regular-season SEC title. They didn’t celebrate much when they won the SEC Tournament.
But when Nolan Fontana stroked a game-winning, walk-off single in the ninth inning to top in-state rival Miami (37-22) in the winner’s bracket of the Gainesville Regional 5-4, the Gators (47-16) stormed the field to meet him.
With the bases loaded and one out, Fontana took a 1-1 pitch and pulled it to right field, flinging the bat in the air in joy. As Daniel Pigott crossed the plate for the winning run, the Gators’ dugout emptied, swarming Fontana in celebration.
“I was just looking for a strike, something that I could drive out to the outfield,” Fontana said. “That’s what I tried to do. I got on top of one a little bit and just hit it. It’s exciting.”
With the game locked in a 4-4 tie with one out in the bottom of the ninth, Miami head coach Jim Morris elected to pull lefty Sam Robinson, who had just mowed down seven-straight Gators.
It was a fatal mistake.
“I didn’t want to overextend him where he couldn’t pitch tomorrow,” Morris said. “(Travis) Miller is used to getting right-handed hitters out in those situations. Robinson’s used to getting left-handers out.”
Pigott got on base after Miami shortstop Stephen Perez botched a routine grounder up the middle. Miller (L 2-2, 3.37 ERA), the reliever Morris brought on for Robinson, then gave up a walk to redshirt sophomore Vickash Ramjit on five pitches.
Morris changed pitchers again, bringing in Daniel Miranda with runners on first and second and one out.
A balk allowed Pigott and Ramjit to move to second and third. The count went full to third baseman Cody Dent, and Miranda walked him to load the bases for Fontana.
After taking a ball and fouling one off, Fontana set off the fireworks in McKethan Stadium, driving the third pitch over the shortstop for the win.
“It was a great game,” head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “You’ve just got to tip your caps to our guys. I was really proud of the way they battled all day.”
Miami opened the scoring in the top of the third inning after third baseman Brad Fieger got aboard with a leadoff double to the gap in left-center field.
A perfect sacrifice bunt up the third base line by catcher Shane Rowland moved Fieger to third. Center fielder Nathan Melendres popped up the first pitch of his at-bat to center field, scoring Fieger on the sacrifice fly to give the Hurricanes the early 1-0 lead.
Miami added another run in the top of the fourth inning when first baseman Harold Martinez hit a leadoff single and Perez drove him in with a one-out double to the gap in left-center.
The Gators finally answered in the bottom half of the fourth inning, plating a couple of runs on three doubles.
Junior right fielder Preston Tucker led off with a leadoff double down the right field line, and sophomore catcher Mike Zunino drove him in with a double to the gap in left-center in the next at-bat, cutting Miami’s lead to 2-1.
After senior second baseman Josh Adams moved Zunino over to third with a sacrifice bunt, junior Tyler Thompson brought him home with a double to right field on a 1-2 pitch, knotting the game at 2-2.
Florida took the lead in the bottom of the fifth inning after sophomore righty Hudson Randall (9-3, 2.50 ERA) held Miami scoreless in the top half.
Ramjit led off the inning by rifling one down the third base line. The ball bounced off the third baseman into foul territory in left field, allowing Ramjit to stretch it into a double.
With one out, Fontana drove a ball to left field. Miami left fielder Rony Rodriguez bobbled it, allowing Ramjit to score. Fontana stumbled and fell trying to turn the single into a double, but the throw to first to pick him off sailed wide and allowed Fontana to get to second.
Tucker then launched a double to deep right field, just over the glove of Miami’s Dale Carey. Fontana scored on the hit, giving Florida a 4-2 lead.
“We knew when we had the 4-2 lead that the game was certainly far from over,” O’Sullivan said. “They battled all day at the plate.”
The Hurricanes quickly responded in the top of the sixth with a two-out double and an RBI single, getting their third earned run off Randall.
Randall pitched a season-high 96 pitches in 6.0 innings. He gave up three earned runs on six hits, racking up five strikeouts in the process. He turned over a 4-3 lead to Greg Larson in the top of the seventh.
Larson gave up a run in the top of the seventh to knot the game at 4-4 after Miami second baseman Zeke DeVoss led off with a single and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt. Rodriguez drove him home with an RBI single to left in the next at-bat.
After Nick Maronde closed the seventh and worked a scoreless eighth, junior righty Tommy Toledo (W 5-3, 3.12 ERA) came on to shut Miami down in the top of the ninth.
Toledo gave up a leadoff double to Melendres before getting a one-pitch groundout to short and a three-pitch strikeout for the second out.
With Melendres on second, pinch hitter Chantz Mack drove a ball right at Toledo. Toledo knocked it down and the ball flew toward third base. Toledo recovered, spun and fired to first for the third out.
“It was a chopper right to me and it hit the top of my glove,” Toledo said. “I was just fortunate enough to where I got under it. I got back and set my feet and made a good throw to first and that was big momentum for us.”
Capitalizing on the big play, Zunino gathered the team in the dugout and gave the team some advice.
“He’s our leader, he’s our catcher,” Tucker said. “He just told us we need to get a guy on base to start things off. We knew if we got a guy on things could happen.”
Florida didn’t hesitate, jumping on Miami in the bottom of the ninth to stun the Hurricanes yet again in the NCAA Regional and bring the 3,565 fans there to their feet.
“It was a hard-fought game by both sides, we just happened to get some breaks at the end,” O’Sullivan said. “Awfully proud of the way we played all day long.”
With the win, Florida moves one win away from advancing to the NCAA Super Regionals. Miami and Jacksonville will play tomorrow at noon, with the winner advancing to face the Gators at 4 p.m.
While Florida needs just one win to capture the Gainesville Regional, Miami or Jacksonville would have to beat Florida twice to advance.
“The first game is obviously very important,” O’Sullivan said. “Equally, if not more so, (is) the second game of the tournament, because now somebody’s got to beat you twice.”
Sophomore pitcher Brian Johnson is still day to day after suffering a concussion in the SEC Tournament. If he’s unable to pitch, the Gators will likely turn to senior lefty Alex Panteliodis (5-2, 4.11 ERA).
Sophomore first baseman Austin Maddox missed the game with a sprained foot and is also still listed as day to day, though O’Sullivan said he’s “more hopeful” about Maddox’s chances to play Sunday.
O’Sullivan said he’ll let his team celebrate the win tonight, but it’s back to work tomorrow. Florida knows it can’t let its foot off the gas with a chance to close out the NCAA Regional tomorrow afternoon.
“There are two really good teams left in this tournament,” O’Sullivan said. “Tomorrow’s a new day. I think that’s one of the great qualities about this team so far. They have the ability to enjoy successes, but they have the ability to put it behind them and refocus on the next day. We’ll make sure that they’re focused tomorrow.”