OMAHA, Neb. — Steven “Paco” Rodriguez was so focused on shutting down the Vanderbilt Commodores that a tornado warning siren, a severe storm and a 12-hour delay couldn’t deter him.
The Florida baseball team defeated Southeastern Conference rival Vanderbilt 3-1 on Tuesday morning at TD Ameritrade Park in a game that was halted Monday night due to a thunderstorm and threat of tornadoes in the downtown Omaha area.
Rodriguez relieved Florida starter Karsten Whitson with two outs in the fifth inning on Monday and struck out Vanderbilt slugger Aaron Westlake to strand two Commodores’ baserunners.
Rodriguez (W, 4-2) needed only four pitches to retire the first two batters in the sixth inning, but the game was delayed for 2 hours and 40 minutes when a storm front moved into the city. Rodriguez stayed loose in the locker room in hopes he could pitch again that night.
“Yesterday, when the sirens went off I was kind of upset because I was dealing, and I felt really good,” Rodriguez said. “So I was like, ‘God, I don’t need this to happen right now.’ I was like hopping around in the locker room trying to stay warm so I could go back out there, but it didn’t happen. So I was like let’s prepare for today, and go at it today, and everything came out in my favor.”
When the game resumed on Tuesday morning, most of the 20,182 fans in attendance on Monday night did not return as the game that was picked up with two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning and the Gators holding a 3-1 lead.
Florida head coach didn’t hesitate to send Rodriguez back out to the mound despite the 14-hour break in the game.
“He had thrown 11 pitches, and I think the general rule, at least for us, is if he throws 30 or more, then we’ve got a tough decision to make,” O’Sullivan said. “For us with him throwing 11, he threw the one pitch, obviously, in the Super Regional. He’s well rested. As you can tell, he’s strong and durable. There is no question we’re going to run him back out there with the pitch count the way it was the night before.”
The one pitch Rodriguez threw in the Super Regional was hit for a run-run walk-off home run by Mississippi State’s Nick Vickerson during the Gators’ 4-3 loss to the Bulldogs on June 11 in Gainesville.
Rodriguez was eager to pitch again after the disappointing performance in his last appearance.
“The first thing was when I came out of the Mississippi State game, I was coming in trying to do my job,” Rodriguez said. “That’s what I tried to do. It didn’t come out in my favor, but I had to forget about it and go on to the next game. I can’t let anything like that affect me from the day before. It’s a new day, and I’ve just got to come out there and do my job if I get the opportunity.”
Instead of one opportunity on Monday, he got a second another on Tuesday and was even more impressive.
“He did what he needed to do,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s done that a lot for us this year. He’s one of those guys that he may not get the notoriety that some of the other guys do, but the guys in our locker room know how good he is and how valuable he is. I’ve said for a long time he’s got a chance to pitch in the big leagues for a long time. Today was an extra special day to come back from last night.”
The Gators (52-17) didn’t need to score any runs on Tuesday thanks to a three-run homer by junior Preston Tucker in the fourth inning on Monday.
Tucker blasted a 2-1 pitch over the right field bullpen off of Vanderbilt starter Grayson Garvin, the SEC Pitcher of the Year.
“It was actually a slider that I hung,” Garvin said. “Good hitters. That’s what they do. He should have hit that where he hit it. I actually thought I pitched better yesterday than I pitched in about a month, but it was one swing.
“You know, I think we are two evenly matched teams, but they got the better of us yesterday and today, and that happens. But, yet again, that was just kind of a hung slider. He’s a very good hitter. His bat stays in the zone a long time, and he made me pay.
The home run game was the 15th by Tucker this season.
“I know how competitive Garvin is,” Tucker said. “He’s going it to give me his best stuff. He’s got a real good fastball. He’s throwing his breaking ball pretty well yesterday. Every plus count he had on me, he had been throwing me breaking balls. So I was obviously was looking for a fastball, but breaking ball I wasn’t going to be surprised at all. He had thrown everything in the zone, but he left that one up a little bit.”
Garvin (L, 13-2) struck out nine batters and allowed five hits and a walk over six innings.
“I felt like I had all my stuff working yesterday,” Garvin said. “Over the past couple of weeks I felt like my old speed stuff was hit or miss. I felt comfortable with my changeup and my slider, moving the fastball in and out. So I was just trying to stick to that plan like I’ve done all year.”
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin lamented the fact that the games ultimately decided by Tucker’s home run.
“It was just one swing, and that is the way the game’s played, particularly when you’ve got two very even teams,” Corbin said. “I know that they’ve had their way in terms of the outcome, but that doesn’t change my opinion in terms of the evenness between Florida and Vanderbilt.”
Westlake had three strikeouts in the game and a line out to first base in his final at bat against Rodriguez.
“He’s a great pitcher,” Westlake said. “He utilizes those two pitches. It’s kind of like a lefty version of Will Clinard. You’ve got a pretty hard cutter and you compliment it with a slider. Throws you off balance. Most of the pitches are moving away. You know, he’s the guy that basically against lefties he works away and makes you hit his pitch. He’s not going to give you a pitch to hit. Him and Karsten didn’t give us many pitches to hit yesterday and today. So we’ll give them credit. “
Westlake was confident that the Commodores will face the Gators again in the CWS.
“I’ve been in the league, and he is one of the better pitchers I’ve seen out of a bullpen staff for lefties,” Westlake said. “So, just tip our caps to them, and we’ll see them again. We’ve seen them before, and we’re going to be more prepared next time.”
Whitson pitched 4.2 innings and held the Commodores to one run on four hits and a walk while striking out five batters.
“I felt good,” Whitson said “I was trying to pitch low in the zone yesterday. I was trying to pitch low in the zone and trying to have quick innings. I knew it was obviously going to be a low-scoring game because with both bullpens and Garvin and myself, it was just going to be a low scoring game.”
Whitson was making his first CWS appearance.
“I was just trying to keep us in it,” Whitson said. “My slider was a little low in the zone the first couple innings. Then I did a good job of changing my sights and bringing it up a little bit, and I was able to keep hitters off balance. Overall I felt good. I knew when Preston hit that three-run homer, I just had to put a zero on the board the next inning, which I did. Then Sully came and got me and brought in Paco, and you can’t say enough about what he did today. So it was good for him to pick me up.”
Whitson allowed a run on two hits and a walk in the fifth inning.
“He doesn’t pitch like a freshman,” Corbin said. “He’s a big, strong kid. He throws a big, heavy ball like he’s throwing bowling balls to the plate, and he keeps coming. Where I thought we had him is when Sully took him out. I think he got to the fifth inning there and he started losing the strike zone a little bit.”
Corbin was particularly impressed with Florida’s talented freshman, who was drafted No. 9 overall in the 2010 MLB Draft.
“He’s poised,” Corbin said. “He’s got command of his fastball. He throws a breaking ball under the string, below the knees, makes it difficult on the right-handed hitter because you have to gear up for a power fastball. When he throws the slider, he gets you to cheat a little bit, and you lead off his ball. You know, he’s a first rounder. You’re not supposed to keep kids like that, and they did. That’s why Florida’s pretty good.”
The Gators improved to 4-1 against Vanderbilt this season, accounting for four of VU’s 11 losses.
“Make no bones about it now,” Corbin said. “In order for Florida to beat Vanderbilt, they better be pretty damn good, and they are.”
Florida will face the winner of Wednesday’s 7 p.m. ET elimination game between Vanderbilt (53-11) and North Carolina on Friday at 2 p.m ET, needing one win to advance to the CWS Championship Series. If Florida loses on Friday, there will be a win-or-go-home game on Saturday to determine which team advances to the best-of-three finals that begin Monday.
“We’re looking forward to Friday,” O’Sullivan said. “Obviously we’ve got a long way to go in this thing. Whoever we play on Friday, we’ll probably see their number one pitcher, so we’ve got a lot of work to do the next couple of days. We’ve got to stay focused on what we’re doing and be ready to go. This thing is long way from over, but we’re awfully excited about the position we’re in right now.”
O’Sullivan has not decided which pitcher will start the game for the Gators.
“We haven’t really had a chance to talk about what’s going to happen Friday,” O’Sullivan said. “I think a little bit depends on who we play. We’ve got some options. At some point though I do know that we need to get (Austin) Maddox into a ballgame and we need to get him going. But we’ve got some other options down there too. We haven’t used (Tommy) Toledo yet. We haven’t used (Anthony) DeSclafani, a few other guys that haven’t pitched. But I think it’s important to get Maddox out there at some point.”