The Gators found yet another way to lose a game that they should’ve won on Sunday afternoon.
They led No. 1 Tennessee 4-1 thanks to Brandon Neely carrying a no-hitter into the seventh inning and Jac Caglianone driving in a couple of runs in his first career start. Tennessee’s Jorel Ortega led off the ninth with a home run to left-center field off of Blake Purnell, but Purnell struck out the next two batters to draw tantalizingly close to his fifth save of the year.
Then, things blew up on Purnell in a hurry. Trey Lipscomb flared a single in front of right fielder Sterlin Thompson, and Purnell walked Luc Lipcius.
Purnell then got to two strikes on Evan Russell to get one strike away from victory, but Russell singled to left to load the bases with two outs. Christian Moore lined the very next pitch into left field for a game-tying single.
As bad as that blown save was, the Gators still were in excellent shape to walk things off in the bottom of the inning. Volunteers reliever Redmond Walsh plunked Caglianone with a pitch to lead off the frame, and pinch runner Corey Robinson stole second. A sacrifice bunt by Deric Fabian moved him to third with one out.
A medium deep fly ball by Colby Halter would’ve won the game given Robinson’s blazing speed, and a groundball might have snuck through the drawn-in infield.
Instead, Halter struck out swinging. After an intentional walk to Jud Fabian, Thompson flew out to left to send the game into extra innings.
Tyler Nesbitt put up a zero in the 10th for the Gators, but Moore ripped their hearts out again in the 11th with a two-run homer that cleared the left-center field wall with plenty of room to spare. The Gators went down in order in the bottom of the inning, and Tennessee finished off the sweep with a 6-4 victory.
“We’re just finding ways to do things at the worst time of the game to put ourselves in tough spots,” coach Kevin O’Sullivan said.
“Tennessee’s good. They can pitch. They can play defense. They can hit. They do everything really well. They have a good bullpen. They have different looks. But, for me, we’ve been No. 1 an awful long time here, and I don’t see anyone that we’re inferior to or anybody that we can’t compete with.”
The ninth-inning bullpen implosion is going to get talked about the most in the coming days, and that’s really unfair to Neely. He kept the Volunteers out of the hit column until there was one out in the seventh.
Given that Tennessee leads the SEC (and the nation) in several offensive categories, the freshman turned in UF’s best start of the year and looked like a potential future ace.
He gave up just one run on one hit and struck out a career-high eight batters in a career-high seven innings.
“Brandon Neely was awesome today,” O’Sullivan said. “He competed, poured his heart out there and made some big pitches. He was really good. He gave us a chance to win. I can’t say enough about his effort today.
“He’s going to be a really good pitcher for us. He is right now. He’s getting better. You guys can see it.”
The Gators jumped out in front with a two spot in the bottom of the first. Jud Fabian walked with one out, and Thompson followed with an infield single up the middle. Wyatt Langford walked to load the bases.
Tennessee starter Drew Beam drilled BT Riopelle with a pitch to score one run, and Kendrick Calilao lofted a sacrifice fly to center to plate another.
In just his third career at bat, Caglianone smashed a first-pitch fastball from Beam over the wall in center for a solo shot in the fourth.
Two innings later, Josh Rivera reached on a bunt single and advanced all the way to third on a throwing error. Caglianone fell behind reliever Will Mabrey 0-2 but muscled a pitch to center field for a sacrifice fly to extend the lead to 4-0.
“He’s big and strong,” O’Sullivan said of Caglianone. “He’s aggressive. Certainly, I think he can add some things to our lineup. It’s one game, but certainly today, he had a good day at the plate.”
That would basically be the end of the Gators’ day offensively, as Mabrey, Mark McLaughlin and Redmond Walsh shut them out on one hit over the final five innings.
Drew Gilbert broke up Neely’s no-hitter with a one-out triple in the seventh, and he scored on Lipscomb’s groundout.
Neely struck out Lipcius to end the seventh before walking the leadoff batter to start the eighth. O’Sullivan brought in Purnell, who retired the next three batters in a row to end the inning and set up the ninth-inning meltdown.
The Gators do not have a midweek game this week due to final exams. They’ll take Monday off before preparing for next weekend’s series against Kentucky.
“At the end of the day, we still control our own destiny,” O’Sullivan said. “We have four series left, and we’re just going to have to kind of keep going at this thing this week. It’s disappointing; there’s no question.”