If you’re a Gator fan (and I’m assuming you are since you’re on GatorCountry.com), what you saw on Friday night/early Saturday morning at Founders Park was cruel and unusual punishment.
After a 5 hour-and-31-minute game full of twists and turns and emotional highs and lows, the No. 5 Gators dropped the longest game in school history timewise 9-8 in 14 innings to No. 25 South Carolina in game one of the series.
With two outs in the top of the 14th, Nathan Hickey belted a home run to straightaway center field that gave the Gators (16-6, 3-1 SEC) the 8-7 lead. It was the first time either team had scored since the eighth inning, and it looked like it would be the decisive swing.
In the bottom half of the inning, UF reliever Ben Specht retired the first two Gamecocks batters with no issue. He had Andrew Eyster down in the count 0-2. Then he threw a pitch that caught far too much of the plate. Eyster lined it hard to right center field. Right fielder Sterlin Thompson made a leaping attempt at the wall but to no avail. Eyster’s home run tied the game at eight.
Three pitches later, Jeff Heinrich chopped a slow groundball up the middle for a single. On the next pitch, Colin Burgess lined a double into the right center field gap. Thompson misplayed the ball off of the wall, and whatever chance the Gators had of throwing Heinrich out at the plate was extinguished. Heinrich scored easily, and the Gamecocks (14-6, 2-2) had a walk-off win.
In a span of less than 10 minutes, the Gators went from jubilation to heartache and stunned frustration. Hickey went from being a hero to a mere footnote. Specht went from being the winning pitcher in his first appearance in more than a month due to an injury to being the losing pitcher.
The game started out as a shootout, with both starting pitchers struggling with command.
Gamecocks starter Thomas Farr walked the first three batters of the game. Kirby McMullen made him pay with a two-run single to right field to give the Gators the early lead.
Florida starter Tommy Mace tossed a scoreless bottom of the first on just 13 pitches, but he ran into trouble in the second. The first four batters of the inning hit singles, with Heinrich’s knock bringing home a run. It looked like Mace would limit the damage when he got the next two batters to ground into a fielder’s choice and pop out. However, Braylen Wimmer and Josiah Sightler hit back-to-back singles to give South Carolina a 4-2 lead.
Mace didn’t pound the bottom of the strike zone with his fastball like he usually does. Instead, he threw a ton of pitches over the plate and got knocked around. He pitched just four innings and gave up 10 hits. He did a nice job of limiting the damage in the score column to just the second inning, though.
The Gators used some small ball to get a run back in the third. Jud Fabian reached on a throwing error by the shortstop, and Hickey reached on an infield single. A groundout by McMullen moved them into scoring position. Jordan Butler popped up into shallow left field. The shortstop, George Callil, caught it, but his momentum carried him into left field and left him in no position to throw. Fabian alertly tagged up and raced home for a run.
UF took the lead in the fifth inning thanks to more erratic pitching from Farr. He walked Hickey and McMullen with one out, and Butler singled up the middle to load the bases. Thompson laced a two-run single off of the first baseman’s glove to give the Gators a 5-4 lead.
Farr walked six batters in 4 1/3 innings, and the Gamecocks walked 13 Gators as a staff.
It appeared that the Gators had added an insurance run when Mac Guscette grounded to second off of reliever Jack Mahoney. Wimmer fielded it cleanly and flipped it to Callil for one out. However, Callil lost the ball on the exchange from his glove to his right hand and couldn’t turn the double play. A run crossed the plate on the play.
Gamecocks coach Mark Kingston challenged that Thompson interfered with Callil, which would result in a double play. Thompson didn’t slide into the bag but didn’t appear to make contact with Callil. Regardless, the SEC office opted to overturn the call and take the run off of the board. That wound up being a huge decision.
Hickey picked up an RBI with a sacrifice fly in the sixth inning to stretch the lead out to 6-4. A Jacob Young RBI single in the following inning gave the Gators a three-run cushion.
In what foreshadowed things to come, UF pitcher Trey Van Der Weide retired the first six batters he faced before running into trouble in the seventh. Wimmer and Sightler led off the frame with consecutive doubles to trim the UF lead to 7-5. Franco Aleman replaced him on the mound and got the next two batters out. However, Eyster singled to center field to make it a one-run game.
For those counting at home, that’s three innings that UF’s pitchers had a chance with two outs to escape with either no runs scoring or only one run crossing the plate. They went 0-for-3 in those situations.
A single and a fielding error by Aleman on a bunt in the eighth inning ended his night and allowed Wimmer to tie the game with a double off of Christian Scott. Scott kept the game tied by inducing a pair of popups to end the inning.
Then a pitchers’ duel broke out.
Scott proceeded to throw three scoreless innings after allowing the inherited runner to score, with two hits and five strikeouts. Specht retired the first eight batters he faced with a pair of strikeouts prior to the 14th inning dramatics.
South Carolina’s Andrew Peters threw four scoreless innings with five strikeouts and just one hit, though he did walk three Gators. The Gators could never catch up to his mid-90s fastball up in the zone. Julian Bosnic struck out five of the eight batters he faced and picked up the win despite giving up the home run to Hickey.
The Gators had the game won on several different occasions, but the Gamecocks simply made more winning plays down the stretch. Now the Gators must emotionally and physically recover and find a way to even the series later on Saturday.
With their backs to the wall, the Gamecocks responded to pull off a shocker. Now it’s the Gators’ turn to show their resiliency and fight back.