HOOVER, AL — South Carolina smashed third-seeded Florida 11-3 Thursday morning in the loser’s bracket of the Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament. Poor fielding hastened Florida’s elimination from the tournament as the Gators went 0-2 and were the first team sent home.
Defense has been a disastrous at times this season and not so good others. The same poor fielding that cost the Gators quite a few ball games in 2008 reared up its ugly head Thursday as three Florida errors contributed mightily to South Carolina’s cause. Left fielder Avery Barnes dropped a fly ball in the eighth that should have been the first out of the inning. The miscue and timely hits by the Gamecocks turned a 6-3 contest into yet another five run nightmare and Florida quickly found themselves down and out, 11-3.
Florida got on the scoreboard in the first inning when Matt den Dekker punched a single into center field to get Florida started. He moved to third on Cole Figueroa’s single, which put runners on the corners. Den Dekker came home on Brandon McArthur‘s fly out to center field,.
Florida starter Billy Bullock (4-4, 5.16) struck out leadoff hitter Reese Havens to start the contest on a positive note for the Gators. Whit Merrifield followed with a single to right field and moved to third when Bullock threw the ball away trying to pick off Merrifield. However, Justin Smoak grounded out to second base and Bullock struck out James Darnell to end the threat.
The second inning was an altogether different story. Bullock walked Phil Disher to start things off on the wrong foot. DeAngelo Mack then singled through the right side. Designated hitter Parker Bangs ripped a double down the right field line, scoring Disher and advancing Mack to third base. Struggling Harley Lail followed by lifting a ball into left field, which scored Mack. Two batters later, Reese Havens singled to center field driving home bangs. Whit Merrifield then singled through the left side of the Florida infield to load the bases.
That was all that Florida Coach Kevin O’Sullivan needed to see. He went to his bullpen and called on freshman Tommy Toledo, who came in with the bases loaded and was immediately forced to pitch to one of the best hitters in college baseball, Justin Smoak. Toledo ran the count full and on the eighth pitch of the inning walked him, driving in yet another South Carolina run. The walk to Smoak was the 149th walk of his career, tying a South Carolina career record. Toledo didn’t fare any better pitching to clean-up hitter James Darnell. He walked Darnell on a 3-1 count for Carolina’s fifth run of the inning. Toledo got Phil Disher to pop out to Brandon McArthur in foul territory and struck out DeAngelo Mack to get finally out of the inning. Carolina batted around to take a 5-1 lead.
Den Dekker walked to start the third inning for Florida. Figueroa grounded out to third baseman James Darnell, which moved den Dekker into scoring position. McArthur then singled brining den Dekker to the plate for the Gators second run of the game.
Florida scored again in the fifth and it was the streaking den Dekker who made it happen. The sophomore doubled down the left field line with one out. Figueroa singled up the gut to drive home den Dekker and cut South Carolina’s lead to 5-3. Den Dekker went 3-for-4 on the day, scoring all three of the Gators runs.
The Gamecocks added a run of their own in the bottom half of the fifth when an error and a Darnell double did the damage.
Toledo did a nice job in relief. He sent the Gamecocks down in order in the third and fourth. Who knows what might have been had their not been an error to start things off in the fifth?
Toledo recorded a quick out in the bottom of the sixth, but hit Scott Wingo on an 0-1 delivery. Havens walked on four consecutive balls out of the zone and O’Sullivan went back to his bullpen. Right-hander Josh Edmondson threw one pitch and got Merrifield to hit into a 5-4-3 double play that ended the inning.
Mack reached on Barnes’ error in the eighth and things progressively went downhill from there until Smoak hit a bomb that cleared the center field fence for a three-run home run that put a stamp on Florida’s SEC Tournament plans. With his 21st round tripper of the season, Smoak became the 7th player in SEC history to reach 60 or more career home runs. He also tallied his 200th RBI, most in South Carolina history.
Nick Godwin (7-3, 3.09) picked up the win for the Gamecocks.
Florida will now wait for the NCAA Selection Committee decision to see what fate beholds them. The NCAA Tournament Selection Show will air live on ESPN at 12:30 p.m. on Monday afternoon.
TOURNAMENT NOTES: The Gators looked awfully solid for an opportunity to host an NCAA Regional after closing out the regular season with a third place finish overall in the Southeastern Conference. It would be unusual for a third place team not to host, but there are several teams with better overall records. Florida has a very high RPI (9), strength of schedule (4), and outstanding facilities. And let’s face it, money is always a huge factor. You can bet that there was no error in the bid.