Fontana strikeout keys 16-inning win

On a night where Florida honored the top two players in school history in career RBI, senior right fielder Preston Tucker and College Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Brad Wilkerson, the Gators couldn’t seem to get many once the game actually started.

It didn’t matter, in the end.

In an almost five-hour-long, 16-inning game, Florida (30-8, 10-6 SEC) snuck by Georgia (23-16, 7-9 SEC) on a throwing error by Bulldogs catcher Brandon Stephens after junior shortstop Nolan Fontana struck out for what would have been the third out of the inning.

“I’ve never been so excited to strike out,” Fontana cracked after the game with a wry, almost boyish grin. “So many zeros in a row, and who’s going to be the guy to clutch up with the strikeout?”

The bottom the 16th inning started like the last few before it. Second baseman Casey Turgeon flew out on the second pitch of his at-bat to start the inning.

But then first baseman Vickash Ramjit drew a five-pitch walk to put the winning runner on first with one out. A sacrifice bunt from third baseman Cody Dent moved him over to second with two outs, and a wild pitch got him to third to set up the dramatic finish.

Fontana stepped to the plate with what was left of the crowd of 4,840 at McKethan Stadium roaring to life. He took the wild pitch first, then quickly took a strike and fouled a pitch off to fall behind 1-2 in the count.

That’s when his former high school teammate, Georgia pitcher Blake Dieterich, threw a breaking pitch down in the dirt. Fontana swung at it for the third strike.

“I swung at a ball in the dirt, and I realized it hit the dirt,” he said. “I saw the catcher pick it and just tried to dodge him and run down to first as hard as I can.”

Fontana narrowly eluded Stephens’ tag and sprinted up the first base side. Stephens, without a clear throw to first, swung hard to his the right to try to create a throwing angle.

As Fontana sprinted to the bag, Stephens threw it to first. The ball sailed high over the first baseman’s head, and Ramjit scored the winning run as Fontana safely reached first.

“We haven’t been involved in a game like that since I’ve been here,” coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “Nolan said that’s the way you strike out.”

Florida had a chance to win it with a walk-off earlier in the game in the bottom of the 13th inning. Designated hitter Brian Johnson hit a one-out single to right field, and freshman Josh Tobias came on to pinch run for him to put some speed on the base paths.

Left fielder Justin Shafer drew a walk to move Tobias to second. Turgeon then came up and roped a single to right field.

Assistant coach Craig Bell waved Tobias around third, sending him home as Georgia right fielder Kevin Ruiz threw home. The throw was perfect, and Stephens got Tobias for the second out as he slid home.

“Craig is aggressive, and he sent him,” Fontana said. “The right fielder made a great play, that was it. You’ve just got to keep playing.”

Ramjit grounded out to third to strand Shafer at third to end the inning scoring chance.

“It gets to a point where it’s borderline comical,” O’Sullivan said. “You’re in the 16th, it’s after midnight and we have not been in a situation like this.”

Greg Larson (W 5-0, 1.64 ERA) was the fourth pitcher of the night for the Gators, picking up the win after going three scoreless innings in extras.

Georgia left-hander Alex Wood put together a dominant performance on the mound for the Bulldogs as the starter, but came up a little short as Florida’s pitching staff dueled with him toe to toe in a terrific defensive game for both teams.

Georgia took an early 1-0 lead in the top of the third inning when third baseman Curt Powell hit a two-out double to right field. Center fielder Peter Verdin scored him moments later with a single to left.

Florida scored one run in the fourth and one in the fifth to take the lead 2-1. Catcher Mike Zunino led off the bottom of the fourth with a double to left field, and Johnson brought him home with a single to center field.

The Gators took the lead in the fifth when Fontana led off the inning with a single and then moved to second when Daniel Pigott followed him with a single. Back-to-back sacrifice flies from Preston Tucker and Zunino allowed him to score.

The Bulldogs tied the game in the top of the 8th inning at 2-2. Catcher Brett DeLoach hit a one-out triple to the gap in left center field, and left fielder Conor Welton followed him with a single to left center to tie the game.

Florida was able to win despite going 10 innings without a run. The Gators finished with 13 hits.

“It was an emotional game,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s a Friday night game in this league. Hopefully it will give us a little bounce coming out tomorrow.”

The Gators are expected to Johnson, a junior lefty with a 5-1 record and a .388 ERA, against Bulldogs righty Michael Palazzone (1-5, 5.81 ERA).

The game is set to begin at 7 p.m. ET with a TV broadcast on CSS.