HOOVER, Ala. — Tears. Panic. Guilt. Disappointment. Anguish. Joy. Laughter.
The Florida and Georgia baseball teams ran the gambit of emotions on Saturday at the SEC tournament when the games seemed to become an afterthought.
When the day was over, the No. 3-ranked Gators (44-16) earned a berth in the tournament championship game by defeating the Bulldogs 3-2 in the second game of the day.
Georgia won the first game of the day 4-3 to force the elimination game.
Prior to the first pitch of the day, the video board at Regions Park played a feature about Georgia junior Johnathan Taylor, who is paralyzed from the waist down after colliding with a teammate and suffering a broken neck during the Bulldogs’ game against Florida State on March 6.
“They showed that clip, and you see those pictures of him laying there, I just can remember it so clearly,” Georgia head coach David Perno said. “It seems like yesterday. He’s an unbelievable kid, never has a bad day. It’s been amazing to watch our guys rally around him and when he’s getting better and the word gets back to our guys, we play better. His progress has been this team’s progress. It’s just a real special group, a close group, just a lot of fun to be around.”
During the video, every player from both teams stopped their warmup activities and watched. Taylor spoke of his desire not just to walk again, but to play again someday. His teammates and coaches spoke of his character and resolve.
“It’s always good to see him,” a Georgia player said. “That’s our brother.”
As the public address announcer stated that Taylor was in attendance for Saturday’s game, sitting in a wheelchair on the field as his teammates warmed up, he received a standing ovation from the crowd of 7,205, including the Georgia players who surrounded him. At that time, Florida’s players ran as a group across the field to join the Bulldogs in saluting Taylor and shaking his hand.
“We all want to win and this is competitive,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “It’s Florida-Georgia, it’s the SEC. I get that, but today was an opportunity for both teams to show some sportsmanship, some class. It’s the least we can do. Georgia’s been through an awful lot this year with what’s happened to them. That was not something that came from me. The players came to me and said they wanted to do it, and I said it was a great gesture. Our leaders came up and suggested it and I thought, it’s the least we can do.”
Both teams put rivalry aside.
“I thought it was really special that Florida came over and shook his hand,” a Georgia player said. “That was special.”
O’Sullivan remained with Taylor and Chance Veazey, who is also paralyzed due to a broken neck suffered in a scooter accident near the University of Georgia in October 2009, after the Florida players resumed warmups.
“The day got started, we see the special on JT and the team goes over, sees him and then you see Chance,” O’Sullivan said. “It just had a weird feel from the beginning. It was just emotional. I could feel it for myself when I went over and I came back. No one ever wants to see that. Usually when you take the field your team’s getting together and they’re getting all excited and they go, but today was totally, totally different deal. Your hearts go out to those kids because you never see that happen to anybody.”
The chills from the pre-game events echoed throughout the day.
Two outs into the first game, another scary moment occurred when Florida sophomore starting pitcher Brian Johnson was knocked unconscious and taken to a hospital.
Georgia designated hitter Brett DeLoach reached first base on a throwing error by Johnson, then took second base on a wild pitch. As Florida catcher Mike Zunino tried to gun down DeLoach at second, he stumbled and his throw hit Johnson in the back of the head, causing the 6’3”, 225-lb. pitcher to fall flat on his back where he remained motionless for more than a minute.
Athletic trainers from both teams surrounded Johnson before he regained consciousness and was helped up. Johnson was taken by cart to an ambulance. After a visit to St. Vincent’s hospital in Birmingham, he would be released to the team hotel. Johnson was diagnosed with a mild concussion after a CT scan revealed no fractures, bruises or bleeding.
“Brian’s one of my best friends,” Florida sophomore shortstop Nolan Fontana said. “Right when it happened and I saw him laying there I was shocked for a second. We found out that he’s alright and I’m looking forward to going to see him after this.”
Zunino appeared to be distraught as he watched Johnson lying on the grass in the center of the diamond.
“He was emotional when that happened,” O’Sullivan said. “He didn’t explain anything, I didn’t ask anything (about the play). At that point, when that happened, I just wanted to reassure him that Brian was going to be OK because he was visibly emotional about that. He cares about his teammates. He’s clearly one of our leaders and he felt awful about it. I just wanted to have him relax. He was the first guy I went to when I got news from our trainer that he was going to be OK. It was long day for him, he caught 18 innings, and he had that happen in the first inning of 18 he had to catch. It was a long day for him. I’m awfully proud of how he handled things. He’s certainly going to get the game ball from today.”
Florida senior Josh Adams stood by his side and spoke with him, then Perno stood by Zunino and patted him on the back.
“I just told him he’s going to be alright,” Perno said. “He’s too good of a player. That’s the guy you worry about it. When Zach (Cone) and Johnathan Taylor collided, Zach was the one that I was concerned about because he was wearing it, all the guilt and everything. Having been through those types of situations, Mike’s such a great player, I didn’t want him to feel like it’s his fault — you’re competing. I just tried to comfort him a little bit from a standpoint that (Johnson) is going to be alright.”
After Johnson left the stadium, the Gators huddled near the mound.
“We went through something like that with Tommy Toledo when he got hit by a line drive last year,” O’Sullivan said. “I don’t know if you’re ever prepared. Things like that happen. All of a sudden it just comes up on you, but you’ve got to regroup. I just brought them together and told them Brian was going to be alright and he would want us to focus and bear down and we’ve got to keep our focus on the task at hand, and that Brian was in good hands he was going to be alright.”
Florida junior Anthony DeSclafani (L, 5-3) took the mound when the game resumed, throwing 7.2 innings in relief in which he allowed two runs on seven hits.
“I think Anthony was outstanding,” O’Sullivan said. “Two runs over seven-plus (innings). It’s clearly his longest outing of the year. He mixed his pitches well. That should really help his confidence going into the postseason. We’ve always thought, as a coaching staff, that he was kind of one of the key guys that if we could ever get him going it would make us even better.”
The Gators tied the game at 2-2 in the bottom of the first inning on two-run double by Tyler Thompson, who replaced Johnson in the batting order, to chase Georgia starting pitcher Earl Daniels. Georgia scored twice in the third inning to hold the lead for the remainder of the game as Michael Palazzone (W, 10-4) earned the win in relief.
Palazzone said Thompson and Veazey have inspired him and his teammates throughout the season.
“Baseball’s just a game,” Palazzone said. “That’s real life. You can’t take this game too seriously. You’ve got to go out there and have fun because you’re never guaranteed tomorrow so you’ve just got to take every play for what it’s worth.”
Florida put the potential tying runner on base in the ninth inning when Vickash Ramjit reached on a pinch-hit single. Ramjit stumbled as he rounded first base on what could have been a double.
“Coach just told me to get ready and I got the opportunity to go out there,” Ramjit said. “I made a sharp turn on the bag, and I’ve had previous injuries on my ankle, and my leg just gave out.”
Georgia closer Tyler Maloof got a game-ending double play to earn his 18th save of the season, but more importantly capped a third-consecutive victory for his team to assure the Bulldogs of a record a game above .500, the minimum requirement to qualify for the NCAA tournament after they opened the SEC tournament with a loss. Georgia (31-30) has played the nation’s toughest schedule and is projected to receive an at-large bid.
“If we don’t make that type of schedule, we probably don’t make this type of run here,” Perno said. “We’re fortunate we won the first game today. I don’t need to defend what we’ve accomplished and our wins, but I think we’re in (the NCAA tournament). It’s just a matter of where. It worked out. We’re very lucky, we’re not going to make a schedule like that anymore, but fortunately it worked out.”
The final out of the first game produced a celebration by the Bulldogs in which they stormed the field then joined Thompson and Veazey near the dugout.
“It was just really special for our program, Perno said. “It allowed us to go in the second game and we didn’t have a lot of pressure on us. The kids played hard like they have all year. I’m probably as proud of this team as any team we’ve ever had.”
As the Bulldogs celebrated, the Gators looked on and had a meeting in their own dugout.
“I didn’t say a whole lot,” O’Sullivan said. “The guys were concerned about Brian. We got word about midway through the game that he was going to be OK. I think it kind of eased up everybody’s mind a little bit. There really wasn’t a whole lot being said, it was just a matter of getting off your feet and getting ready to go.”
Florida freshman Karsten Whitson started the second game, tossing 5.1 innings and holding Georgia to two runs on five hits and three walks while recording three strikeouts.
Facing a 2-0 deficit in the third inning, Fontana hit a two-run homer off of Georgia starting pitcher Patrick Boling to tie the game.
“He got behind in the count and he came in(side) with a fastball and I got my hands through and put a good swing on the ball,” Fontana said.
The game remained tied for five innings as the teams combined to use 18 pitchers on the day, exhausting both bullpens.
Florida junior Tommy Toledo (W, 4-3) relieved Steven Rodriguez after a leadoff walk in the bottom of the eighth inning and struck out the first two batters he faced before inducing an inning-ending groundout.
Ramjit led off the top of the ninth with a double and advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt by Daniel Pigott. Cody Dent drew a walk from Eric Swegman (L, 1-1), prompting a call to the UGA bullpen.
Georgia reliever Craig Gullickson got Fontana to hit into a potential double play, but Fontana beat the relay throw to first base on a close play and allowed Ramjit to score the go-ahead run.
“Right when I hit it all I was thinking was ‘get there. Get there before the ball,’” Fontana said. “I got fortunate and beat it out and we got the win.”
Perno walked out of the Georgia dugout to protest the call by first base umpire Tony Maners, but later conceded that the ruling was correct.
“He did get it right,” Perno said. “There was some close plays all day and I didn’t really want to go out (to argue during) that second game, I was exhausted. The way we played that second game, I was shocked. We make all those errors but our pitchers kept holding us in it. I said ‘I gotta go back him,’ and I went ahead and did it. There were some other plays earlier that were bang-bang. It happens, it’s part of the game. He apparently got the call right, I guess I owe him an apology. I’ll get him next year.”
With the Gators holding a narrow 3-2 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning, O’Sullivan was faced with a decision of whether to leave Toledo in the game, or replace him with first baseman/RHP Austin Maddox.
“(Toledo) came in with a runner on first with nobody out (in the eighth inning) and did a really nice job,” O’Sullivan said. “I think Maddox is clearly our closer at this point, but you get in a situation like today and (Maddox) has been on his feet for 17-straight innings and you’ve got a guy who’s rested and just threw a great eighth (inning) and you’re almost tempted to throw Tommy out there again.
“Once again, Austin tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘it’s been a long day, I want to finish this thing.’ I had confidence in both of them. I felt like if Tommy closed it out he would have done the job, we have a tremendous amount of confidence in him. Tommy’s coming on here as of late, that’s why we started him in the first game of this tournament. We felt like he was throwing the ball really good.”
Maddox sandwiched a double and a fly out between a pair of strikeouts to record his fifth save of the season after convincing O’Sullivan to hand him the ball.
“I kind of talk him into it,” Maddox said. “I love being out there in those situations, it’s probably my favorite.”
Florida will next face No 4-ranked Vanderbilt in the tournament championship game on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET (ESPN2). Florida has not appeared in the championship game since 2000, when the Gators lost to LSU 9-6, and has not won the championship game since the tournament was moved to Hoover, Ala.
Vanderbilt is 3-0 in the 2011 SEC tournament after defeating Arkansas 3-2 in the first game played on Saturday.
The Gators and Commodores (47-9) shared the SEC championship with South Carolina after finishing the regular season with identical 22-8 records.
“Every day we come out to win,” Ramjit said. “Tomorrow’s a big day to prove to a lot of people that we deserve to be the SEC champions and we’ll be ready.”
Florida won 2 of 3 games against then No. 2-ranked Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn. two weeks ago, but the Gators are eager to win the conference tournament for the first time since 1991.
“It would mean a lot to us,” Maddox said. “We want to win it. We know it’s going to be a dogfight. I was a battle earlier at Vanderbilt this year. We expect them to be the same tomorrow.”
Florida will start junior lefthander Alex Panteliodis (4-2, 4.65 ERA), while Vanderbilt will start senior righthander Taylor Hill (4-0, 3.16 ERA). Panteliodis has not made a start in SEC play this season.
“Our (bull)pen will be fine tomorrow,” O’Sullivan said. “Nick only threw six pitches, Larson (threw) eight, Paco (Rodriguez) threw eleven and Tommy threw eight and Austin threw 15, so we can get one inning apiece out of those guys tomorrow and if AP (Panteliodis) can give us a solid start we might have a chance.”
For Florida to knock off the Commodores, the Gators will have to get past a day that left them physically and mentally drained.
“Today got started off on a really emotional note,” O’Sullivan said. “We got over and see Chance (Veazey) and JT and it’s emotional. Then all of a sudden, Brian gets hit in the head with the ball.
“It was a long, hot day. It was a frustrating day, it was an emotional day. It was just a long, hot day, it was emotional and I’m glad we came out and scored a run there in the last inning. Obviously, the hustle play by Nolan down the line was the difference. Overall, it was a great day. We knew we only had to win one, but it was an emotional day nonetheless. I know these guys are going to sleep well tonight.”
Fontana said that the Gators are up to the task of putting Saturday’s events behind them.
“Today was emotional, but we’ve got to get off our feet tonight and come out tomorrow with a new mindset of playing our game and playing nine hard innings of baseball and see if we can go out there and get the W.” Fontana said. “We’re looking forward to tomorrow. There’s going to be a lot of emotions out there tomorrow. If we win tomorrow it will carry momentum and that’s what we’re looking for to get going to the postseason.”
Perhaps as an attempt to lighten the mood and segue into Sunday’s game, Ramjit provided a bit of levity during the postgame press conference when he sported a false mustache. Flanked by Fontana and Maddox, Ramjit drew snickers from the media as he and his teammates fought back laughter.
“The mustache thing is sort of a team thing,” Ramjit said. “Everybody grows a mustache and I can’t really grow one, so as good teammates they invested in a fake one for me.”