The Gators were in a good position to close out Oklahoma and win the Gainesville Regional shortly after 3 p.m. on Monday. They were up 2-1, and starting pitcher Brandon Neely had only given up four hits in 6 2/3 innings on just one day’s rest.
Then a storm came and washed the Gators’ season away.
Following a five-hour-and-32-minute weather delay that somehow felt even longer than that, the Sooners erupted for four runs in the top of the eighth and held on to defeat Florida, 5-4. The Gators finished their season with a 42-24 record.
While every season-ending loss is painful, this one stung particularly hard for coach Kevin O’Sullivan. Watching his team grow from one that was 6-12 in SEC play to one that played as well as anyone in the country outside of the Volunteer State over the past month made this a very rewarding season for him, and it’ll be tough for him to say goodbye to some of the players who sparked that run.
“They were selfless,” O’Sullivan said. “They paid attention. They were a tight-knit group. If you followed us closely, you could see that they were really close. I told them this morning and I told them again tonight that this is one of the most enjoyable years I’ve had coaching.
“There are some years you get beat and you just feel it wasn’t as tight-knit as it needed to be. This group was tight. I’m just thinking about different names. I hate bringing up names, but Brandon Sproat is right there. Where he started and where he is now, it’s awesome. I feel bad for Hunter Barco; I do. Here’s a guy that goes down after the Vanderbilt series, but he was a huge part of our team even though he was injured. He was right there on every pitch, and he was involved with the team.
“From an emotional standpoint, how connected they were. That’s all you can do as a coach is coach them up, help them get better and hopefully see them connect as a group and then go out there and play the best they possibly can, and they did that.”
Jac Caglianone opened the scoring in the bottom of the second inning against Trevin Michael when he launched a missile that bounced off of his name on the scoreboard in right-center field for a solo home run.
Oklahoma (40-21) tied the game up in the fifth when regional most valuable player Kendall Pettis lined a pitch that just snuck over the left-field wall for a homer.
As they did so many times over the final few weeks, the Gators answered right back. Colby Halter led off by hitting a sharp groundball that the second baseman booted for an error. With two outs, BT Riopelle singled to right-center field. Right fielder John Spikerman looked up for a split second to see if he had a chance to throw out Halter at third. That momentary loss of focus caused him to misplay the ball. Halter scored to give UF a 2-1 lead.
The Sooners threatened to tie it right back up in the top of the sixth by putting runners on the corners with two outs. Wallace Clark hit a line drive up the middle, but Jud Fabian sprinted in and made a tremendous diving catch to preserve the lead.
That’s where things stood when Mother Nature put a stop to things for a while.
When the game resumed, it looked like the Gators were going to run away with the win at first. Ryan Slater took over on the mound and struck out Pettis to end the top of the seventh.
The Gators fed off of a lively crowd to put a serious rally together in the bottom of the inning. Chazz Martinez walked Halter on four pitches to lead off, and then Wyatt Langford singled through the left side. Two batters later, Riopelle walked to load the bases with one out.
Ty Evans lofted a soft fly ball into foul territory down the right-field line. Spikerman made the catch, and Halter scored to extend the lead to 3-1.
However, the Gators failed to blow open the game the way that they could have. Caglianone grounded out to first to strand two runners in scoring position.
Slater came back out to start the eighth, but he wasn’t anywhere near as sharp as he was against Pettis the inning before.
He got ahead of Spikerman 0-2 but eventually gave up a leadoff double. He then jumped ahead of Peyton Graham 1-2, but he couldn’t put him away either. His 2-2 fastball caught way too much of the plate, and Graham lined it into the Sooners’ bullpen in left field to tie the game.
Things unraveled quickly for Slater after that. He walked Blake Robertson before yielding a single to Tanner Tredaway. A sacrifice bunt by Jimmy Crooks moved them over, and Clark gave the Sooners the lead with an RBI groundout.
Once again, Slater had a chance to minimize the damage. He got ahead of Jackson Nicklaus 1-2, but Nicklaus hit a groundball that just snuck under second baseman Sterlin Thompson’s glove and into right field to make it 5-3.
Slater plunked Brett Squires with a pitch before being replaced by Fisher Jameson on the mound. Jameson retired four of the five batters that he faced to give the UF offense a chance.
The Sooners put their ace, Jake Bennett, on the mound to start the bottom of the eighth. He retired the Gators in order in the eighth, but Langford crushed a long home run to right-center field with one out in the ninth. That homer tied him with Matt LaPorta for the most homers in a season in program history with 26. More importantly, it got the crowd back into the game and made the Gators believe.
It wasn’t to be, though. Bennett finished off the Gators by getting Thompson to ground out to first and striking out Riopelle.
While sticking with Slater for as long as he did obviously backfired, O’Sullivan doesn’t regret putting the game in his right hand. Slater was the guy that they trusted at the end of games, and he came up clutch with three shutout innings against Central Michigan on Sunday. Unfortunately, the move just didn’t pan out this time.
“No one feels worse than he does,” O’Sullivan said. “No one’s trying to fail. He competed, and, sometimes, the other team just beats you. Ryan’s been our guy, and, when you get to this part of the season, I’m not going to second guess any decision we made. He saved a lot of tough games down the stretch for us. I’m proud of the progress he’s made.
“You’re talking about a redshirt freshman that barely threw any in the fall because he’s coming off Tommy John [surgery]. So, where he was in February to where he is now in June, just like all of them, they’ve all gotten better.”
There was also some questioning among Gators fans about why O’Sullivan didn’t have Sproat ready to pitch in the later innings, especially once the Sooners put Bennett in.
O’Sullivan said that Sproat told him during the delay that he was going to run down to the bullpen once the game resumed, but O’Sullivan wasn’t going to allow him to pitch.
Sproat threw 114 pitches against Central Michigan on Friday night, and he’s a little more than a month away from signing a lucrative MLB contract. The only thing that could’ve kept him away from millions of dollars was for him to get injured by being overworked. O’Sullivan wasn’t willing to put Sproat’s future at risk in hopes of maybe squeaking out a win in a regional.
“If anything were to happen, I’d have a hard time living with myself,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s got a future beyond Florida. I do appreciate him running down to the ’pen, but he was not going to throw in the game. I think that’s one of the things that attracts really talented pitchers to come here. I think I’ve been very conscientious of taking care of arms.
“That’s just something I would have a hard time ever doing.”
Obviously, this isn’t the way that the Gators wanted their season to end. They expect to make it to the College World Series and compete for a national championship on a year in, year out basis. They’ve now failed to make it out of the regional round in their last three postseason appearances.
Still, O’Sullivan said that this season was a huge step in the right direction from a culture standpoint.
Langford learned how to play left field after being a catcher and corner infielder in high school. All he did was turn in one of the greatest offensive seasons in school history and play with two dislodged teeth on Monday.
Halter transitioned from second base to third base and from the leadoff spot to the nine-hole over the past month, and he never complained. He always seemed to make a big play or two every game even when his batting average wasn’t pretty.
Thompson moved from right field to second base over the last month and made some unbelievable plays both at the plate and in the field.
Riopelle was willing to bounce between catcher and first base to give the offense some more firepower.
Caglianone gave up his medical redshirt late in the year to become one of the most productive members of the lineup.
Pitchers like Slater, Blake Purnell, Tyler Nesbitt and Jameson adjusted to all sorts of different roles to become a formidable group by the end of the campaign.
This team wasn’t a collection of individuals that was just out to achieve personal glory. They were a selfless group that worked hard and wanted to do everything that they could to help the team win.
Together, they put together some performances that won’t be forgotten any time soon, from Thompson’s walk-off against Florida State to Nick Ficarrotta’s 6 1/3-inning relief outing against Alabama in the SEC Tournament to Carsten Finnvold’s special performance against Oklahoma on Sunday.
They fell short of their goal this season, but that team-first mentality should bode well for what figures to be a veteran-laden 2023 team.
“We fell one run short,” O’Sullivan said. “In a couple of days, we step back from this, I’m proud of the team. I know everybody wants to win the last game of the year, and we’ve done that. We’ve lost in Omaha, and it hurts. When you lose a Super Regional, it hurts. When you lose in a regional, it hurts.
“But, at the same time, your whole program is built around culture. I think this is a big step forward in building that culture back and getting back to where we want to get to, and that’s playing for a national championship.”