For the most part, Tuesday night was frustrating for the Gators offensively. Florida State committed five errors, walked three batters and plunked a couple of guys. UF had its leadoff batter reach base in five innings. If you didn’t know any better, you would’ve thought the Seminoles were trying to give them the game.
The No. 18 Gators, though, couldn’t take advantage of the litany of free baserunners, at least nowhere near as frequently as they would’ve liked. They managed just four hits – two of them off the bat of Nathan Hickey – and went 0-for-15 with runners on base. They struck out 13 times and stranded eight runners.
However, 10 years from now – heck, maybe even 10 weeks from now – nobody will remember any of that. All people will talk about for the rest of time is Kendrick Calilao lining a 1-0 changeup from Clayton Kwiatkowski over the wall in left field for a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 10th inning in Florida’s 3-2 win over the No. 24 Seminoles.
“I’m just looking for a good pitch to hit,” Calilao said. “The count’s in my advantage. I just figured ‘Get a good pitch to hit,’ and I got one and took advantage of it.”
Yes, he sure did, and it was a much-deserved moment for him in the eyes of his head coach. Calilao led the team in RBI as a freshman in 2019 and tied for third in the abbreviated 2020 season. However, with Sterlin Thompson’s emergence in right field and Jordan Butler earning the nod at first base, there just simply hasn’t been a spot in the lineup for him this season. He’s only started nine games, and his walk-off blast was his first hit in nearly a month.
He’s handled it all with class and determination.
“He’s a really good teammate,” coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “He continues to work hard, and, given the opportunity, he took advantage of it tonight. Good things happen to good people, and he certainly put himself in a position to be successful tonight with all his work that he’s been doing prior to tonight, and, like I said, I’m really happy for him. He deserved a moment like that.”
Calilao and his teammates sure knew how to have a good time celebrating it. Calilao skipped his helmet across the field as he approached the sea of humanity awaiting him at the plate. After he was flogged in a celebratory fashion, his teammates pulled his jersey off of him.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been shirtless on the field before,” he said. “That’s definitely something I’m going to remember for the remainder of my life.”
While Calilao was the offensive hero, his moment in the spotlight wouldn’t have been possible without a pair of tremendous bounce-back performances on the mound.
In Tallahassee earlier this season, Garrett Milchin was hammered to the tune of seven runs on eight hits in 1 2/3 innings. Milchin only has a fastball and a slider, and neither pitch is overwhelming by any means. The Seminoles knew that and made it a point to attack early-count fastballs in the first meeting. Milchin left some pitches over the plate, and the Seminoles made him pay.
That was their same game plan on Tuesday night. This time, however, Milchin located his fastball just about anywhere he wanted it. He painted the edges of the strike zone masterfully and froze batters with some well-placed sliders around the knees.
He tossed a career-high six innings and gave up just one earned run on three hits, all of which came from Robbie Martin. He struck out a career-best five batters and walked just one.
“I thought Garrett was extremely efficient,” O’Sullivan said. “It was obvious from the first pitch of the game they were very aggressive to his fastball, and he located to both sides of the plate with his fastball for six innings. Threw some breaking balls, starting in the second inning, and started landing those. He did everything we could’ve asked from him.”
Jack Leftwich pitched the final four innings to earn the win. His three previous outings were disasters, to put it mildly. He’d given up 10 earned runs in his last eight innings. Against Tennessee on Saturday, he entered in a stressful situation as a reliever and threw eight consecutive balls to get the Volunteers on the board en route to what became a five-run inning.
As he entered the dugout following those back-to-back walks, he slammed his glove against some cubbies and knocked some clipboards around.
He’s certainly in a much better mood after the Florida State game. He didn’t give up a run or a hit, and he struck out seven of the 13 batters he faced.
“He was frustrated with himself, and there was nothing that I was going to be able to say to him to make him feel better,” O’Sullivan said. “The only thing you can do is put him out there again and hopefully get a performance like he did tonight. It’s amazing. Three days ago, he’s not feeling very good about himself, obviously, and then tonight, three days later, he’s on top of the world. The lessons you learn from this game are pretty incredible. I’m really proud of the way he bounced back.”
Hickey, the catcher, thinks the outing might’ve changed the trajectory of his season.
“Saturday was something that should never happen,” Hickey said. “I don’t think it’s ever going to happen again. Jack’s a competitor. He thinks very high of himself, and he doesn’t like it when he gets hit or doesn’t pitch well. Today was a big morale booster because I don’t think he’s been at his best throughout the year, but tonight, he was really good. Everything that he had was where he wanted to throw it. He had control of the strike zone. Everything you need in a pitcher, he had it tonight.”
UF (22-11, 6-6 SEC) grabbed a 2-0 lead in the second inning. Thompson and Jud Fabian reached second and third on back-to-back errors to begin the inning. Kris Armstrong walked to load the bases. Butler and Colby Halter hit a pair of sacrifice flies to score the runs.
The Gators had Florida State starter Carson Montgomery on the ropes in the third inning. Hickey led off with a double and advanced to third on a passed ball. However, Montgomery struck out Kirby McMullen and Thompson and got Fabian to line out to left to tight-rope his way out of the inning.
The Seminoles (16-13, 11-10 ACC) immediately made UF pay for not busting the game open. Milchin walked Logan Lacey to begin the inning. Lacey scored on a double to right center by Martin, who took third on an errant throw to the plate by Halter. Martin scored to tie the game on Wyatt Crowell’s groundout to short.
Jacob Young reached base to lead off the bottom of the fifth when first baseman Tyler Martin dropped the throw from shortstop Nander De Sedas. He advanced to second on a groundout by Hickey but was stranded there when Thompson and Fabian both went down swinging at the hands of reliever Jack Anderson.
Young reached second base with one out in the seventh on a fielder’s choice and yet another error, this time by second baseman Vince Smith. Jonah Scolaro got Hickey to fly out and struck out Calilao, a pinch-hitter, looking at an inside fastball.
“We faced some really good arms tonight,” O’Sullivan said. “Now, I do wish that we would’ve made more adjustments because it was obvious that they were spinning the ball in fastball counts over and over, in 1-0 and 2-1 counts. And that’s what we continue to talk to our players about. As you go along in the season here and you face better pitching and they have the ability to slow the ball down, they’re just not going to throw 1-0 fastballs over and over and 2-1 fastballs. So, we’ve got to do a better job making adjustments there for sure.”
Tuesday night was a feel-good night all the way around. Calilao got rewarded for his patience and selflessness, Milchin redeemed himself following the nightmare last month and Leftwich got back on track.
And, of course, it always feels good to beat those guys out west, especially when you do so in heartbreaking fashion.
In the big picture, that’s now two games in a row that looked bleak for the Gators that they’ve battled back and won. Maybe they’re about to get hot and become the team they were expected to be when the season started.
“If we want to keep being successful, our emotions just have to be positive at all times,” Hickey said. “Every team goes through ups and downs throughout the course of a season. We’ve been going through kind of like a down period, up and down right now, but I think we’re about to catch stride.”
One swing of the bat can change your perspective on everything.