After a full season of playing with a target on their backs the Florida Gators eased up when they clinched the SEC regular season championship on the second to last weekend.
They had spent 11 of the previous 14 weeks atop the national rankings and when they checked off their first goal for the 2018 season they relaxed. What they learned over the next two weeks is that they can’t afford to turn the switch off and on.
That clicked during a six-run fourth inning that field Florida’s 13-5 win over 4-seed Columbia.
“It’s been written about and talked about a lot how we struggled here the last few weeks,” Kevin O’Sullivan said. “I’m really pleased with how we responded.”
Florida got on the board first with a walk and a double but freshman Tommy Mace lost control in the second inning and the Lions took advantage.
Chandler Bengston singled to start the frame and a walk gave the Lions two runners on. A single plated Bengston and another reloaded the bases before Mace even recorded an out. A sacrifice fly gave Columbia a 2-1 lead, and they extended it with another run in the third inning.
“It just was a weird feeling in the dugout,” O’Sullivan said. “We fell behind early and I’m not gonna minimize this win. When you fall behind 3-1 and you’re playing Columbia and things haven’t gone as well as you wanted them to go the last couple weeks it could have went sideways in a hurry.”
The Gators pulled to within one in the third but stranded the bases loaded after two lazy popups.
Then the big crooked number in the fourth inning happened. Nick Horvath singled and a pitch hit Jonah Girand. Deacon Liput tied the game with a double down the first base line before Maldonado walked to load the bases. Jonathan India’s double plated two more and Wil Dalton doubled home two as well. Blake Reese hit Florida’s fourth double of the inning to score Austin Langworthy, who tripled before Reese’s at bat. Just like that Florida had a comfortable lead and freshman Jordan Butler on the mound shoving.
Butler took over with two runners on, no outs and the score 3-1 in the third inning. He navigated those murky waters to get Florida out of the jam without allowing another run. On the day the freshman lefty threw five innings, allowed one run on two hits, struck out five and walked just one.
“I thought Jordan Butler was outstanding out of the pen,” Kevin O’Sullivan said. “I thought he threw really well. We thought about going to Jack Leftwich but Jack and Tommy are very similar looks and we thought we needed to change things up.”
Florida continued tacking on runs to the tune of a 13-5 win. Wil Dalton led the way with four hits and six RBI in his first NCAA Tournament appearance.
The win kept Florida from being just the fourth ever reigning National Champion to lose its first Regional game.
The Gators will now play the winner of Jacksonville and FAU on Saturday at 7 p.m. with Brady Singer back on the mound.