Déjà vu: Gators walk-off Seminoles again

The last meeting between Florida and Florida State in Gainesville produced one of the enduring images of the Gators’ 2021 season – a shirtless Kendrick Calilao being mobbed at home plate by his teammates after he hit a walk-off home run.

History repeated itself on Tuesday night at Condron Ballpark, only this time with a different hero. Sterlin Thompson was the one who was disrobed, chased and celebratorily pummeled by his teammates following his moonshot two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth.

With a runner on first and two outs in the ninth and the game tied, Florida State opted to bring in Andrew Armstrong out of the bullpen for a left-on-left matchup with Thompson despite Armstrong having an ERA just shy of seven at the time.

Armstrong hung a 1-1 slider over the middle of the plate, and Thompson timed it up perfectly. The ball exploded off of his bat like it was shot out of a cannon. The only question was if Thompson had hooked it foul.

He hadn’t. The ball stayed fair by several feet and sailed into the night sky to give the Gators a 7-5 victory over the No. 20 Seminoles. With the win, UF took the season series over FSU after the teams split their prior two meetings in Jacksonville and Tallahassee.

“It was a blur, honestly,” Thompson said. “I saw it up. I knew it was gone, and I threw my bat. That’s just something I dreamed of as a kid, especially against FSU, a big-time rival. It’s amazing going around the bases, and I saw my teammates. It was something I’ll never forget.

“That was probably one of the best moments of my life on the baseball field. So, it was really nice.”

Thompson wasn’t the only hero for the Gators. Wyatt Langford tied Jud Fabian for the team lead by belting his 18th and 19th homers of the year, and his two-out, two-strike single brought Thompson to the plate in the ninth.

Tyler Nesbitt provided stability on the mound after a tough start to the game, giving up just one hit and no runs in 3 1/3 innings with five strikeouts.

“All of our guys were coming in and giving an inning or two, and then he came in and was able to get like a good four innings,” Langford said. “It was huge. He put up all zeroes. It was awesome.”

Ryan Slater recorded the final two outs in the top of the ninth to become the pitcher of record.

The game started out as a back-and-forth slugfest through the first 3 ½ innings. After Florida starter Nick Ficarrotta pitched a scoreless top of the first, Langford led off the bottom of the inning with a bang. He crushed Jackson Baumeister’s first pitch just to the left of the batter’s eye in center field for a home run.

The Seminoles (32-19, 15-12 ACC) answered in the second. Brett Roberts lined Ficarrotta’s first pitch into the left-field corner for a leadoff double. Two pitches later, James Tibbs blasted a ball that hit just below the scoreboard in right-center field to give FSU a 2-1 lead.

Ficarrotta then walked Brock Mathis to dig himself into an even bigger hole. With one out, Logan Lacey doubled down the left-field line to make it a three-run inning.

The Gators (33-19, 13-14 SEC) stranded two runners on base in the second before erupting for four runs in the third and chasing Baumeister from the game.

Once again, Langford provided the spark. He sent a 3-1 pitch over the wall to the right of the batter’s eye for his second leadoff homer in as many at bats.

“We’ve had some really good hitters come through here, but it seems like every time he comes to the plate, he’s got a chance to do something kind of special,” coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “When guys are hot like this, you need to sit back and enjoy it. It kind of reminds me of when Preston Tucker was here. When he would get hot, the whole ballpark kind of stops to watch him.”

Baumeister then plunked Thompson with a pitch, and Thompson advanced to second on Fabian’s slow groundout to the second baseman.

Josh Rivera walked with two outs, and Florida State brought in Jonah Scolaro for a left-on-left matchup with Jac Caglianone.

Scolaro uncorked a wild pitch that advanced both runners into scoring position, and Caglianone came through with a single to right field that scored both runs and gave the Gators the lead.

Ty Evans followed by smoking a ball toward the right-field corner. Right fielder Jaime Ferrer tracked it down and had the ball in his glove, but he dropped it as he collided with the wall. Caglianone scored all the way from first to make it a 5-3 game.

FSU wasted little time tying the game up in the fourth. UF reliever Fisher Jameson, who recorded all three outs in the third, walked Mathis to begin the frame. Lacey laced a hard-hit single to left with one out.

O’Sullivan brought in side-armer Blake Purnell to try to induce a groundball and get out of the jam.

He got the groundball. However, it was a slow roller to Thompson at second, which meant that they only got the out at second.

Purnell threw a wild pitch to bring in one run and put Lacey in scoring position. Former Gator Jordan Carrion fought off three straight 2-2 pitches and eventually lined the full-count pitch into right field for a game-tying RBI single.

Things settled down considerably from that point on. Scolaro shook off the rough start to his outing and didn’t give up a hit over the next four innings. He retired 12 consecutive batters at one point and struck out seven Gators. Davis Hare tossed a hitless eighth inning before giving up the two-out single to Langford in the ninth.

Meanwhile, Purnell wiggled out of another dicey situation unscathed in the fifth before handing the ball off to Nesbitt to start the sixth.

Nesbitt didn’t allow anyone to reach base until Lacey reached on a one-out bunt single in the ninth.

With the top of the order coming up, O’Sullivan made a somewhat controversial decision to bring in Slater instead of continuing to ride the hot hand.

“[Nesbitt] had done his job,” O’Sullivan said. “I felt like maybe a little bit better fastball at that point of the game because they were getting ready to turn the lineup over again. If Ryan’s going to be the guy that we’re going to trust at the end of the game, he needs to get out there and do it.”

The move worked. Tyler Martin smoked a groundball that seemed like it was heading for left field. Instead, third baseman Colby Halter dove and stopped it with the very edge of his glove. He hurried to his feet and threw out Lacey at second.

Martin stole second to put himself in scoring position. Carrion hit Slater’s first pitch hard, but Thompson tracked it down in right center for the final out.

The Gators have now won 10 of their last 12 games, and they’ll look to keep the momentum going entering the postseason when they host South Carolina in the final series of the regular season starting on Thursday.

The Gators will reconvene on Wednesday morning for practice. Until then, the celebration of Thompson’s walk-off will continue.

“You saw the reaction,” O’Sullivan said. “I think that probably tells you everything you need to know. It’s big. Playing this time of the year, you’re playing Florida State at home in front of 7,000 people or so. We were fortunate enough to win some games recently, so we’ve kind of built some momentum.

“It’s important. We’re getting in the part of the season where every win is kind of magnified, and I’d like to think that we’re hopefully playing our best baseball at this time of year. Certainly, this win is only going to help the RPI and that type of thing moving forward. Yeah, it was a big win. It was a fun win, too.”

Just as fun as it was last year.

Ethan Hughes
Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and also wrote for InsideTheGators.com for two years before joining Gator Country in 2021. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars. You can follow him on Twitter @ethanhughes97.