One day after jumping back into the top-25 the No. 20 Florida Gators dropped a midweek game to in-state opponent Florida Atlantic University, 5-4 in 11 innings on Tuesday night. The Gators came into the showdown flying high, winners of 13-of-16, including four-consecutive wins over FSU and LSU last week.
Karsten Whitson earned the start — working for the first time since a one-inning outing against Arkansas on March 16 — and hurled a scoreless first inning before the Gator bats went to work.
Casey Turgeon and Richie Martin worked five-pitch walks and Harrison Bader loaded the bags with a single. Taylor Gushue lined a ball into center field for his seventh sac-fly of the season. Gushue is just four sacrifice flies away from tying the school record in a season with 11. Braden Mattson followed Gushue up with an infield single to score Martin and Mattson advanced to second on a throwing error. Justin Shafer grounded out to shortstop but earned an RBI. Just like that Florida led 3-0 in the top of the first.
The Owls wouldn’t be discouraged by the early deficit.
Florida maintained the 3-1 lead, with A.J. Puk taking over for Whitson in the third. Puk worked two scoreless innings before getting into trouble in the fifth. In an 0-2 count, CJ Chatham stayed back and launched Puk’s third offering, a fastball around chest high, over everything in left field and into the parking lot outside of the stadium.
Puk would work out of the inning, striking out six batters before giving way to Shaun Anderson in the sixth. Anderson worked quickly, getting two outs before allowing a double to Billy Endris. Esteban Puerta singled on the very next pitch to tie the game at three. Puerta finished the game 4-5 with a hit off of four different pitchers.
Florida responded with a run of its own in the sixth but the Owls made it three-straight innings with a run, knotting the game at four in the seventh.
The eighth inning came and went with both teams going down without a fight before the Owls quieted the crowd at McKethan Stadium. Chatham and Kerr singled to start the inning off and both runners were moved into scoring position by a Ryan Harris wild pitch. Harris struck out Cain Spangler before intentionally walking Brendon Sanger to load the bases.
Kevin O’Sullivan called down to the bullpen, bringing Aaron Rhodes into a bases loaded, one-out jam in the ninth. Rhodes gave up a scorching line drive to Tyler Rocklein but Casey Turgeon made a leaping snag worthy of SportsCenter’s top-10. Rhodes got Ricky Santiago to line out — much more softly this time — to Turgeon two pitches later to work out of the jam unscathed.
With momentum riding on Florida’s side, John Sternagel laced a ball into left field to get things going in the ninth. Jason Lombardozzi pinch hit for Pete Alonso and laid down a perfect drag bunt for an infield single. With runners on first and second and nobody out, Florida sent its best bunter, Buddy Reed, to the plate. Heading into the at-bat, Reed had successfully laid down nine sacrifice bunts (four shy of the school record for a single season) but he would not find his 10th tonight. He pushed his bunt attempt too hard towards the mound and Sternagel was forced out at third. A pair of fielder’s choices from Turgeon and Martin ended the Gators’ bid to end the game and sent the teams into extra innings, the sixth time this season Florida has played free baseball.
After a quick 10th inning FAU would strike in the 11th. Spangler laced a one-out single to left field and was advanced by a Brendon Sanger single. Rocklein reached on a 3-to-6 fielder’s choice, setting up first and third with two outs.
With Rhodes set to deliver to the plate, Rocklein took off for second. Rhodes stepped off and spun around towards second, hesitating a moment before throwing the ball.
It’s exactly what FAU wanted him to do.
Rocklein worked himself into a rundown, giving Spangler time to delay steal home and take a 5-4 lead. It’s a play that every baseball player has worked on since high school.
“All the time. We practice it,” O’Sullivan said. “They executed it right, we didn’t. It’s as simple as that.”
Florida went down in order in their half of the inning, falling to 19-10 (6-3 SEC) on the season and to 4-2 in extra inning affairs.
“I don’t know. I’m disappointed with our approach tonight; I’ll be honest with you. I’m really disappointed,” O’Sullivan said after the game. “I would expect our guys to be ready to play all the time. I think they should be excited. We’re coming off winning 13-of-16, come off a great weekend, a great week last week and I didn’t think we were ready to play.”
Florida travels to No. 22 Kentucky for a three-game series this weekend.