Sometimes, it only takes one player to turn a team’s fortunes around. The Gators found themselves in that exact position on Saturday afternoon, having lost four of their last five games and struggling to make contact at the plate.
Jordan Carrion stepped up as the hero the Gators needed. He started the game at shortstop, hit his first college home run, pitched out of a major jam and finished the game at second base in No. 15 Florida’s tension-filled 6-5 win over No. 3 Ole Miss to take the series at Florida Ballpark.
Carrion entered the day having started less than half of the games, with 13 singles to his credit and no extra base hits. He’d only made four appearances on the mound and none in more than two weeks. Even so, Carrion didn’t get frustrated by the lack of playing time. He stayed dialed in and came through when his team desperately needed a series win.
“You’ve just got to trust [coach Kevin O’Sullivan],” Carrion said. “I knew my time would come, and, when my number was called, I was ready.”
The whole team was, actually.
After striking out an outrageous 18 times in game two of the series, the approaches at the plate were much better on Saturday. They recognized that the Rebels (21-6, 7-2 SEC) were going to throw off-speed pitches early in counts and try to finish them off with fastballs. They were much more competitive with two strikes and ran up some pitch counts. They struck out just five times, with three of them coming from third-string catcher Cal Greenfield.
They got the bats going quickly. Jacob Young led off the bottom of the first with a walk and advanced to third on a single by Nathan Hickey. Kirby McMullen scored Young with a sacrifice fly to center field.
Young led off the third with a line drive triple into the left center field gap. Hickey hit a sacrifice fly to center to make it 2-0.
With the bases empty and two outs in the fourth, Carrion stepped into the batter’s box and got a fastball from Ole Miss starter Derek Diamond that was supposed to be in but caught far too much of the plate. He crushed it to deep left field. Even with the wind blowing in, it landed in Ole Miss’ bullpen for a home run. Known as more of a speedy contact hitter, Carrion only hit one home run in his high school career, so this one felt extra special to him.
“Once I hit it, I knew I got it,” Carrion said. “It was just a matter of whether the wind was going to hold it back. When it got out, it was just a great feeling. I wanted to get my team going, get them pumped up, wanted to change momentum, and it worked. We got the dub, and that’s all that matters.”
They did indeed get the win but not without some late drama. After bending but not breaking in his first four innings, UF starter Hunter Barco cracked in the fifth. Two singles and a hit batter loaded the bases with nobody out. Barco did a nice job of sacrificing a run to get two outs when he got Peyton Chatagnier to ground into a double play to McMullen at third. However, Jacob Gonzalez lined a first-pitch fastball into center field to cut the lead to 3-2.
The Gators (18-9, 5-4) got those runs back plus one more in the bottom of the inning. Young led off with a bunt single. Hickey followed by crushing a first-pitch slider over the berm in right field and out of the stadium.
“I’ve gotten probably six [first-pitch sliders] throughout the series,” Hickey said. “I wasn’t sitting [on] it, but I saw it go up, and it stayed up, and I was like, ‘This one’s mine.’”
With one out, Sterlin Thompson lined a ball into left center field that center fielder T.J. McCants dove for and missed. It rolled all the way to the wall for a triple. Jordan Butler took advantage of a drawn-in infield with a groundball single past the second baseman to extend Florida’s lead to 6-2.
Once again, though, the sigh of relief didn’t last long. Barco walked the leadoff batter in the sixth and was replaced by Trey Van Der Weide. A throwing error by Greenfield on a chopper in front of the plate allowed Hayden Dunhurst to reach base. Van Der Weide got Ben Van Cleve to ground back to the mound for a double play. However, a throwing error by Carrion on a groundball by Justin Bench scored an unearned run to cut the lead to 6-3.
Van Der Weide retired the two first batters he faced in the seventh before the wheels came off. Kevin Graham and Tim Elko singled, and Dunhurst scored both of them with a triple that hugged the first-base line. Suddenly, the lead was down to just a single run, and the tying run was just 90 feet away. Van Der Weide plunked Van Cleve, which prompted O’Sullivan to bring in Carrion to pitch.
Carrion wasn’t expected to pitch this season, but injuries and underperformance in the bullpen forced him into playing both ways. And yet, O’Sullivan trusted him with the series – and potentially the direction of their season – hanging in the balance.
“I told [O’Sullivan] when he came out in a meeting before, I said, ‘I’m ready. I don’t need to warm up or anything. You can just pull me from here,’” Carrion said. “And he said, ‘All right,’ and that was that.
“It’s a great feeling to have your head coach trust you. Sully trusts me. We’ve talked about it. I told him, ‘Game on the line, I want the ball,’ and he trusted me. Can’t ask for more than that.”
Carrion rewarded O’Sullivan’s trust by getting Bench to ground out to new shortstop Josh Rivera for the final out of the inning.
Carrion set the Rebels down in order in the eighth inning and struck out a batter.
“He came up to me on Thursday night and wanted the ball late when I was in the dugout,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s just a baseball player. He’s going to throw strikes, and he’s competitive. You don’t know how it’s all going to turn out, but I felt good with the effort he was going to give in a tight ballgame like that.”
Things got dicey once again in the ninth. Graham and Elko picked up consecutive one-out singles. With a pair of left-handed batters due up, O’Sullivan turned to lefty Ryan Cabarcas to try to finish the game. In doing so, he moved Carrion to second base. Cabarcas picked up his first save of the year by inducing a couple of flyouts.
The importance of this win can’t be overstated. A loss would’ve dropped the Gators below .500 in conference play with three ranked opponents still on the remaining schedule. It would’ve also marked their second consecutive series loss following a sweep at South Carolina last weekend.
“It was an important game for us, no question,” O’Sullivan said. “Hopefully, this game will jumpstart us a little bit. We need to learn how to win close games like that, and I’m not quite sure how many one-run games [we’ve played], maybe two the whole year. So, it was important for us to kind of close the door and kind of change the mojo of those close games.”
The Gators have Carrion to thank for the altered mojo.