Gators fall to Gamecocks in finale, will get rematch in SEC Tourney

While the Gators secured the series victory over South Carolina by hammering the Gamecocks on Thursday and Friday, Saturday’s regular season finale was still an extremely important game for them.

A win would’ve given them a winning record in SEC play and would’ve possibly given them a shot at playing an NCAA Regional at home.

Unfortunately for UF, their offense chose a really bad time to fall asleep. South Carolina’s four pitchers combined to issue nine walks, but the Gators could only generate three hits in their 4-1 loss in a game that featured a two-hour-and-35-minute weather delay in the seventh inning.

In kind of a quirky coincidence, Florida (35-20, 15-15 SEC) and South Carolina (27-27, 13-17) will meet again on Tuesday in the SEC Tournament. UF is the No. 7 seed, while South Carolina is the No. 10 seed. They will play the second game of the day in Hoover, Alabama, which should begin around 2 p.m. eastern time. The winner will move into the double-elimination portion of the tournament and face No. 2 seed Texas A&M at the same time on Wednesday.

“I thought we hit some balls hard,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “We just didn’t come up with a timely hit. It’s a really weird box score that I’m looking at. We got walked nine times, and we didn’t walk anybody. Baseball is a weird game sometimes. I think today had kind of that weird feel. I think we were just one hit away from maybe trying to open it up.

“Credit to South Carolina’s pitchers. They did a nice job and kept us off balance. We lost our legs quite a bit of times today at crucial spots, kind of reaching for balls.”

Josiah Sightler got the scoring started in the top of the first against Florida starter Nick Pogue. Pogue got ahead of him 0-2 with two outs, but Sightler hit a high flyball the opposite way to left field. It felt like the worse-case scenario should’ve been that the ball fell in front of left fielder Wyatt Langford for a bloop double. Instead, the ball kept carrying and carrying. It eventually bounced off of the top of the wall and onto the berm for a home run.

The Gators made Gamecocks starter Will Sanders work in the bottom of the inning, as he threw 28 pitches and issued a couple of walks. However, the Gators also struck out three times and failed to score.

Some more two-strike mistakes by Pogue allowed South Carolina to score another run in the second. Braylen Wimmer smoked a 2-2 pitch into the left-center field gap to lead off. Pogue got Talmadge LeCroy to fly out to center, struck out Matt Hogan and jumped ahead of Colin Burgess 0-2 to put himself one strike away from hanging a zero. Instead, Burgess lined the pitch back up the middle for an RBI single, nearly taking Pogue’s head off in the process.

Because the Gamecocks’ only hope of making the NCAA Tournament at this point is to win the SEC Tournament, they opted to pull Sanders, their best starter, after just one inning. The expectation is that he’ll start the game on Tuesday.

Cade Austin replaced him on the mound in the second, and the Gators cut the deficit in half against him. With one out, Ty Evans hit a soft grounder that just got under Austin’s glove for an infield single, and the second baseman Wimmer’s throw got away and allowed him to advance to second.

Kris Armstrong followed by launching a ball to deep center field that might’ve tied the game on other days. This time, center fielder Evan Stone made a leaping grab on the warning track for the second out.

Colby Halter lined a single into right field, and Evans rounded third and headed for home. Andrew Eyster’s throw was perfect, but Burgess dropped the ball while applying the tag, which allowed Evans to score.

South Carolina got that run back quickly – and loudly – in the third – when Sightler smashed his second homer of the game, this one a no-doubter that landed in UF’s bullpen in right-center field.

That was pretty much all of the offense until the seventh inning. Austin and Matthew Becker limited the Gators to just one hit – an infield single – over the next four innings. Pogue settled in and retired 11 batters in a row until plunking Hogan with one out in the seventh.

O’Sullivan made the call to the bullpen and brought in Tyler Nesbitt to try to hold the score at 3-1.

Pogue didn’t issue a walk and struck out six batters in his 6 1/3 innings.

“I thought he threw the ball good,” O’Sullivan said. “Obviously, other than like three or four mistakes with runners in scoring position, I thought he was really good.”

Nesbitt completed his warmup pitches, but, just before Burgess stepped into the batter’s box, home plate umpire Brandon Cooper pulled the teams off of the field due to lightning in the area.

When play resumed, O’Sullivan gave the ball to Blake Purnell. On Purnell’s first pitch, the Gamecocks executed a hit-and-run perfectly. Hogan took off for second, which allowed Burgess to poke the ball through the vacant right side of the infield for a single.

Stone bunted the next pitch up the first-base line. BT Riopelle, who started the game at catcher before moving to first base after the delay, tried to barehand the ball and cut the runner down at the plate. He whiffed on the ball, which allowed Hogan to score and make it 4-1.

Purnell prevented further damage by getting a line-drive double play, and Ryan Slater struck out four batters in two scoreless innings, but it didn’t matter. The Gators didn’t get a hit after the delay and put up very little resistance.

While this wasn’t the way that the Gators wanted to end the regular season, O’Sullivan said that it’s important to have some perspective when assessing where this team is at right now. Four weeks ago, they were 6-12 in the SEC and in danger of not even making the SEC Tournament, let alone the national tournament. They finished the regular season by winning nine of their final 12 league games and winning their final four series.

They’ll likely send ace Brandon Sproat to the mound on Tuesday in hopes of going on a run in Hoover and continuing to build some momentum heading into whatever regional that they’re assigned to.

“I’m proud of them,” O’Sullivan said. “It could have went the other way, too. I don’t know in my 15 years that we’ve been six games under at any point in SEC play, and that was with only 12 to go. The way they rallied, the way they played, the way they’ve been able to pick each other up and stay the course and follow myself and the other coaches’ lead about taking it one game at a time and just staying grounded and staying the course, I’m really pleased with where they’re at.

“Obviously, today is disappointing, but, at the same time, in the big picture, they’ve put us in a position to get to the postseason now, and I like the way we’re playing.”

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 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.