The Gators fought valiantly, but their magical run through the SEC Tournament ended at the hands of No. 1 Tennessee in the championship game on Sunday afternoon in Hoover, Alabama.
Florida did a lot of things well, such as outhitting the Volunteers 13-11, only striking out twice as a team and hanging zeroes in six of nine innings on the mound.
Unfortunately for them, some poor situational hitting through the first seven innings of the game and a couple of big defensive mistakes in the middle innings provided Tennessee with all of the separation that they needed. The Volunteers won, 8-5, to secure their first SEC Tournament title since 1995.
“Congratulate Tennessee,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “They’ve had a remarkable season. They’re the No. 1 team in the country for a reason, and, obviously, today was a tough one for us. I thought we battled the entire week, and we were one hitter away from getting the tying run to the plate [in the ninth].
“I thought our pitching the entire week was outstanding. I thought we swung the bats great. I really like where we’re at right now as a team. I’m looking forward to playing next weekend [in a regional].”
For the third game in a row, the Gators (39-22) got a special performance on the mound from an unlikely source. Freshman lefty Carsten Finnvold entered the day with just four appearances and a 16.62 ERA to his credit this season.
With UF’s pitching staff running on fumes in their sixth game in as many days, Finnvold got the ball for his first career start against one of the most dangerous lineups in the country.
All he did was keep Tennessee (53-7) off of the scoreboard through the first four innings, striking out four batters and giving up just one hit along the way.
The one hit that he gave up in the first four frames came in the third when Cortland Lawson smashed a leadoff triple off of the left-field wall. Finnvold did something next to impossible by getting out of the inning unscathed with two pop outs and a strikeout.
The Volunteers finally broke onto the scoreboard in a big way in the top of the fifth. Evan Russell led off by hitting a groundball to third. Colby Halter fielded it cleanly, but his throw to first skipped in the dirt and got past BT Riopelle, which allowed Russell to make it to second. A single to right by Blake Burke put runners on the corners with nobody out.
Finnvold put himself in position to potentially escape another jam by striking out Lawson, but Seth Stephenson laid down a perfectly placed bunt down the third-base line for an RBI single.
Finnvold struck out Luc Lipcius for the second out, but he uncorked a wild pitch during Jordan Beck’s at bat to put two runners in scoring position.
With first base unoccupied and a left-handed hitter on deck, O’Sullivan chose to intentionally walk Beck and bring up Drew Gilbert.
Finnvold got ahead of Gilbert 0-2, but Gilbert crushed his next pitch deep to left field. Left fielder Wyatt Langford initially took a step in, and, by the time he realized his mistake, it was too late. The ball landed over his head and one-hopped the wall for a bases-clearing double that made it 4-0.
“Gilbert’s a really good hitter, and he just hit it really hard at me, and I didn’t get the best read on it, and the wind was also pushing out there a little bit,” Langford said. “So, I just didn’t get a good read on it.”
That ended up being Finnvold’s final pitch, as Blake Purnell came in and got the final out of the inning.
Finnvold finished with just four hits allowed and six strikeouts in 4 2/3 innings. All four of the runs were unearned because of Halter’s error earlier in the inning.
“You don’t see guys like him a lot,” O’Sullivan said. “I thought he pitched great. I thought he pitched to both sides of the plate with his fastball. His changeup he used against right-handers and left-handers. He stole some strikes early in the count with his breaking ball. He battled.
“He did exactly what he needed to do to give us a chance to win today.”
The Volunteers broke the game wide open an inning later against Purnell. Jorel Ortega led off with a double down the left-field line, and Russell drew a walk. A fielder’s choice and a strikeout put Purnell one out away from getting out of the inning, but Stephenson hit a sharp groundball that deflected off of Halter’s glove for an RBI double. Lipcius made it 7-0 with a two-run double to right center.
Meanwhile, the Gators stranded three runners in scoring position over the first seven innings against starter Camden Sewell and relievers Will Mabrey and Mark McLaughlin. Sewell picked up the win by scattering six hits in five scoreless innings. He only struck out one batter, but he didn’t issue any walks.
Florida finally broke through against flamethrowing righty Ben Joyce in the eighth. Langford reached on a leadoff walk, and Riopelle later sent a 101 miles-per-hour fastball over the left-center wall to make it 7-2.
Ty Evans and Jud Fabian picked up consecutive hits against Zander Sechrist, and Josh Rivera drove in Evans with a two-out single to left off of Kirby Connell.
After pitching a scoreless eighth, freshman lefty Philip Abner surrendered a one-out homer to Gilbert in the ninth.
The Gators scratched across two more runs in the bottom of the ninth via Sterlin Thompson’s RBI double off of Redmond Walsh and an error by the second baseman Ortega, but Walsh got Fabian to fly out to left to end the game.
Stephenson (3-for-5, two RBI), Gilbert (2-for-5, four RBI) and Trey Lipscomb (2-for-3) powered the Volunteers’ offense, while Langford (3-for-4), Thompson (2-for-5), Riopelle (2-for-5) and Evans (2-for-5) led the Gators’ attack.
While the tournament didn’t end with the result that the Gators were hoping for, O’Sullivan still views this week as a positive. They won four games to put themselves in contention for a home regional, and they got some major contributions from seldom used players such as Finnvold, Timmy Manning, Nick Ficarrotta and Mac Guscette. That kind of scrappiness should serve them well in the next tournament.
“I really like our team, and I think we’re playing our best baseball,” O’Sullivan said. “We have been for a while now. I think a run like this in the tournament should certainly help us moving forward.
“It was a really good week for our team, and we should be ready to go for next weekend.”