Mike Mooney has been waiting for the perfect time to get his first base hit as a Florida Gator. With two outs in the ninth inning of a 2-2 game, the winning run stood on second base. Mooney, who is generously listed at 5-8, stroked a line drive over the left fielder’s head, giving the Gators a dramatic 3-2 victory and completing the sweep of No. 8 Louisville in front of 3,094 fans at McKethan Stadium.
“I was wondering when that first one would come, and I figured that would be a good time,” Mooney said with a grin of relief. “When it came off the bat, I thought I got under it a little bit, but it ended up good.”
The plot thickened thanks to the NCAA curfew rule. Louisville was scheduled to fly out of Tampa at 6 p.m. Sunday, so a new inning could not start after 2:35 p.m., which came after Riley Cooper struck out for two outs in the ninth inning. If Mooney had made an out, the game would have ended in a tie.
“I knew we were either going to tie or win, so the pressure was basically off,” Mooney said. “We weren’t going to lose. I just went up trying to get a hit, and it worked out.”
The Gators’ ninth inning started out harmlessly. Preston Tucker took a fastball on the outside corner for strike three and then Cooper did the same. Clayton Pisani, who sat on the bench after starting the first two games at second base, came up with a pinch-hit single up the middle. Catcher Buddy Munroe came up next and drove the pitch between the first and second basemen, setting the stage for Mooney’s fantastic finish.
“(Mooney) has swung the bat well for us all fall and preseason,” said Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan, who led the team’s charge out of the dugout to congratulate Mooney on the walk-off hit. “He stuck his nose on a ball and went the other way. I don’t think there’s any question who gets the game ball today. He played great defensively. Our infield did a heck of a job defensively. It’s a great weekend for us.”
The pitching from both teams was lights out Sunday, particularly Florida’s star freshman left-hander Nick Maronde, who lives an hour or so south of Louisville and played baseball at Lexington Catholic.
The first inning started rough for Maronde. Josh Richmond smoked a one-out single into center field, advanced to second after Florida first baseman Brandon McArthur misplayed a pickoff throw. After Andrew Clark flew out to left field, All-American Chris Dominguez got his first hit of the season, a line-drive single up the middle, scoring Richmond who advanced to third on a balk. Phil Wunderlich smoked a single into left field, followed by Adam Duvall hitting a ground ball under the outstretched arm of Florida third baseman Josh Adams, scoring the second run of the inning and making it 2-0 Cardinals.
Maronde allowed four hits and two runs in the first inning. From then on, he pitched 5.1 innings, allowing only one hitter to reach base on a single who was promptly thrown out by Munroe trying to steal second base. Maronde also retired the final 14 batters he faced before being pulled after reaching his pitch count of 75.
“I was a little shaky during the first inning,” Maronde said. “I got a little too excited. I wanted to come out and make a statement, but I let my adrenaline pitch instead of myself. I just relaxed and made better pitches. I put us in a hole with the two runs, so I wanted to come out and put a stop to it right there.”
O’Sullivan raved about Maronde’s outing, noting his confidence to go right after a lineup packed with several top hitters from the Big East last season.
“I don’t know if it was a shaky start,” O’Sullivan said. “He threw strikes. It wasn’t like he was walking guys. We were facing a good team. If you fall behind in the count, like he did in the first inning, you’re going to give up hits. The thing I was impressed with both Nick and AP (yesterday’s starter, Alex Panteliodis) was they both settled down and gave us a chance to win. Often times if you get a young pitcher out there, two runs turns into three and three turns into four. Next thing you know there’s a leadoff walk and it snowballs out of control. Both guys handled adversity really well, especially playing a really good team like Louisville.”
After Maronde surrendered two runs in the first inning, the Gators fought back with one run in both the second and third innings.
Cooper stayed hot with a one-out double down the left-field line to start the second inning. After Jerico Weitzel struck out swinging, Munroe fisted a blooper into right field, scoring Cooper and cutting the Louisville lead to 2-1.
Avery Barnes led off the third inning by reaching first when the second baseman booted a ground ball and then stole second. Barnes advanced to third when Matt den Dekker grounded out to first base. Adams followed by chopping a ground ball over the third baseman to drive in Barnes, but Adams was thrown out attempting to steal second a few pitches later.
While most Sunday afternoon games are notorious for being long, high-scoring affairs, this one was short, concise and well-pitched from both sides. That wasn’t more evident than during the Louisville eighth and ninth innings. With runners on first and third with two outs, Florida closer Jeff Barfield made his first career appearance to face Dominguez. Barfield pitched him carefully, electing to put him on first base with a walk, rather than giving up a hit. Pinch-hitter Kyle Cheesebrough strolled to the plate but Barfield struck him out on three off-speed pitches, the final two in the dirt.
Barfield returned to the mound in the ninth as Adam Duvall led off the inning by reaching on an error by Adams at third base. However, Barfield got out of further trouble and then was rewarded with his first collegiate victory after Mooney’s game-winning hit.
“I tried to ignore the runners and focus on the batters,” Barfield said. “If you let the runners get to you, nothing good comes from that.”
The transfer from Lake City Community College has been looking forward to stepping on the mound as a Gator all weekend. “I would call it more excitement than nerves,” Barfield said. “It’s a little jumpy with the first batter, but afterward it’s all fun.”
The Gators return to action at McKethan Stadium Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. when they host Eastern Michigan. O’Sullivan expects one of two right-handed freshmen, Justin Poovey or Anthony DeSclafani, to get the start on the mound.