Through eight innings, the biggest storyline in game two between Florida and Mississippi State was all of the missed opportunities by the offenses.
At that point, UF had recorded seven hits and been walked seven times, but they stranded 11 of those runners on the basepaths. Mississippi State’s offense had notched eight hits and six walks at that point in the game, and they stranded 10 of them.
So, as the game entered the ninth inning in a 3-3 tie, it became clear that this game was going to come down to which team got the clutch hit first.
The Gators were that team. They delivered not one, not two, but three clutch hits in the ninth to score six runs and make the final score look like a blowout. Ryan Slater retired the Bulldogs in order in the bottom of the inning to finish off the 9-3 victory.
This marks the Gators’ first series win on the road since taking two of three at Alabama in the first SEC series of the year in mid-March.
“A lot of contributions from a lot of different people,” coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “We played errorless baseball. It was a good night overall, offensively, pitching-wise and defensively.”
The ninth-inning onslaught began with a hustle play by Sterlin Thompson. He chopped a full-count pitch from KC Hunt toward third baseman Kamren James. Thompson sprinted down the line to make it a bang-bang play. First baseman Luke Hancock stretched to try to get the ball in his glove as quickly as possible. In doing so, his foot came off of the bag, which allowed Thompson to be safe on what was ruled an infield single.
Two batters later, Hunt walked BT Riopelle to put two runners on with one out.
That brought up freshman designated hitter Jac Caglianone, whose night had been feast or famine up to that point. He looked overmatched by breaking balls in three of his first four at bats and struck out, but the one outlier was a go-ahead RBI double in the fifth.
With the count at 2-0, Hunt tried to get Caglianone to swing over the top of a curveball again. This time, the ball hung over the outside part of the plate about waist high. Caglianone timed it up perfectly and hit a line drive to left field. Left fielder Brad Cumbest misjudged the ball, and it landed over his head and one-hopped the wall. Thompson scored to give UF a 4-3 lead.
The Bulldogs (25-22, 9-14 SEC) chose to intentionally walk Josh Rivera to load the bases with one out and set up a potential inning-ending double play.
It seemed like a solid strategy at the time. The next hitter, Kendrick Calilao, had been stuck in a 1-for-30 slump and isn’t the fleetest of foot.
The move backfired. Calilao lined the first pitch that he saw just inside the foul line and into the right-field corner to drive in two more runs.
Freshman Ty Evans, making only his second start in SEC play, came to the plate two batters later with two outs. Up to that point, he had registered six hits in his career, with two of them being home runs.
That ratio of homers to hits looks even better now. He got a 1-1 fastball right down the middle from Hunt and crushed it the opposite way and over the right-field wall to make it a 9-3 game and send a large portion of the crowd of 12,297 home early.
The Gators (28-18, 10-13) got contributions up and down the lineup. Wyatt Langford, Thompson, Caglianone and Evans all turned in multi-hit games. Only Jud Fabian and Rivera failed to get a hit, and they both walked twice.
Not to be overlooked is the performance that the Gators got from their bullpen. Freshman starter Brandon Neely was uncharacteristically wild and inefficient with his pitches. He lasted just four innings and gave up two runs on four hits. He struck out seven batters but also walked four and uncorked a couple of wild pitches.
UF’s bullpen trio of Philip Abner, Fisher Jameson and Slater picked him up by giving up just one run in the final five innings and inducing a couple of big double plays.
“You hold Mississippi State down to three runs over nine innings with four freshmen on the mound, hopefully, this shows what they’re capable of doing, and, hopefully, their confidence builds a little bit more,” O’Sullivan said. “Hopefully, we’re getting better as the season goes on, and, hopefully, a game like tonight can really propel us moving forward.
“I know it’s been a bit frustrating this year, but, hopefully, these freshmen are starting to figure some things out. Everybody did their job tonight. We got three outs here or four outs there.”
As they did in the opener on Friday, Florida jumped on the scoreboard very early. Langford led off the game by hitting a line drive to center field off of Preston Johnson. Cumbest, who started the game in center before sliding over to left field later, lost his footing, which allowed the ball to get past him for a double.
Johnson walked Thompson and Fabian to load the bases with nobody out, and Riopelle hit the first pitch that he saw to left for an RBI sacrifice fly. The Gators had a chance to put up a crooked number, however, and failed, as Johnson avoided further damage by striking out Caglianone and Rivera.
Mississippi State used Neely’s wildness to tie the game back up quickly. He walked RJ Yeager to lead off the bottom of the first, and a wild pitch advanced him to second with one out. Back-to-back singles by Luke Hancock and Logan Tanner scored Yeager.
The Bulldogs grabbed the lead in the fourth thanks to another leadoff walk by Neely. Hunter Hines advanced to second base on a groundout, and he scored on Kellum Clark’s double into the right-field corner.
Neely settled down and avoided further damage by getting a pop out and a strikeout.
The Gators answered right back in the top of the next inning. Langford led off by hitting an 0-2 pitch up the middle for a single, and Johnson walked Thompson on four pitches to put the Gators in business.
It looked like UF was going to squander another opportunity when Johnson struck out Fabian and Riopelle looking. However, in what would become a foreshadow of the ninth inning, Caglianone got a hanging breaking ball and hit it hard into the left-center gap to score both runners and give the Gators a 3-2 lead.
Neely came back out to start the fifth and didn’t record an out. Yeager lined his first pitch into the left-field corner for a leadoff double, and he walked James.
“I think he got caught up in the pitch selection – he shook off a bunch with BT tonight – and maybe less on the execution of the pitches,” O’Sullivan said. “He did battle, but I think it’s a good learning experience for him.”
O’Sullivan went to the bullpen and brought in Abner for a left-on-left matchup with Hancock. It worked out to perfection. Abner got Hancock to roll over a groundball to the right side for a 4-6-3 double play. Abner then got Tanner to line out to short to hang a zero.
Abner then worked himself into a jam of his own in the sixth. Hines singled up the middle, and Abner hit Cumbest with an 0-2 slider to put two runners on with nobody out. Abner bounced back by striking out Clark before giving way to Jameson.
Jameson got Aaron Downs to ground into a fielder’s choice and then got Forsythe to ground out to second to end the inning.
Jameson wasn’t able to work his magic again in the seventh. Yeager crushed his first pitch into the left-field corner for a leadoff double, and James singled through the right side to put two runners on base.
Jameson induced a double play off of the bat of Hancock, but the tying run scored in the process. Jameson then gave up a single and a walk to end his night.
Slater entered and didn’t get off to a great start at all. He walked Cumbest on four pitches to load the bases before getting ahead of Clark 0-2. His 0-2 pitch to Clark caught way too much of the plate and was hit hard, but right at Evans in right for the final out.
Slater then set down the Bulldogs in order in the eighth and ninth to finish off the win without further drama.
The Gators came to Starkville needing to win a game or two to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive. They’ve done that. Now they can get greedy and go for the sweep in Sunday’s finale.