Gators hold off Mississippi State to win opener

Florida’s bullpen has been the bane of Gator Nation’s existence this season. They’ve blown six late leads in SEC games and have been walked-off three times.

On Friday night in Starkville, it looked like they might pull off their biggest collapse yet. The Gators led Mississippi State 7-0 after 4 1/2 innings and 8-2 after six.

Then, falling behind in counts and a big defensive mistake allowed the Bulldogs to cut it to an 8-6 game going into the ninth inning. UF’s offense didn’t do anything to halt the momentum, as they failed to score in the final three innings and struck out three times in two of those frames.

A two-out single by Hunter Hines brought the potential tying run to the plate in the bottom of the ninth, and those horrifying memories from the recent past likely started haunting everyone wearing orange and blue.

This time, though, they made just enough pitches to finish things off. Ryan Slater punctuated a five-out save by getting Brad Cumbest to ground out to first baseman Kendrick Calilao, and the Gators survived to win, 8-6.

“You don’t think when you’re up six runs with nine outs to go … that you would get into a situation where you’ve got the tying run to the plate in the bottom of the ninth, but we did,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “The most important thing is Ryan made some pitches at the end there to close it out.”

BT Riopelle was the star of the game for the Gators (27-17, 9-13 SEC). He went a perfect 4-for-4 to set a new career high for hits, and he also drove in a personal-best six runs. One of his hits was a three-run blast to right center that marked his 14th homer of the year. Wyatt Langford was the only other Gator to notch multiple hits, as he went 3-for-4 with his 15th big fly of the season.

Luke Hancock (2-for-5), Logan Tanner (2-for-5), Cumbest (2-for-5) and Lane Forsythe (2-for-2) all registered multiple hits for the Bulldogs (25-21, 9-13).

Brandon Sproat pitched out of some tough jams in the fifth and sixth innings to limit the Bulldogs to just two runs on six hits in six innings. He only issued one walk and struck out five to get credit for the win.

Langford got UF’s offense rolling right away in the first inning by lining a pitch the opposite way into right field for a single. A couple of walks by MSU starter Brandon Smith loaded the bases with nobody out, and Riopelle made him pay by hitting a two-run single up the middle.

Smith quickly found his groove, though, and limited the damage to just the two runs by getting a strikeout and two fielder’s choices, though one of the outs looked like a questionable call at best when they reviewed it.

Smith retired the first two batters that he faced in the second, but, once again, Langford provided the spark. He lined a 1-0 pitch over the wall in right-center field for a home run.

Sterlin Thompson drew a walk, and Jud Fabian lined a ball off of the third baseman’s glove for a single.

Smith tried to flip a breaking ball through the zone to get ahead of Riopelle. Instead, the ball hung over the middle of the plate, and Riopelle launched a rocket that was never in doubt to extend the lead to 6-0.

The Gators tacked on another run in the fifth. Riopelle led off with a single up the middle, and he advanced to second with two outs after Smith got drilled by a line drive off the bat of Jac Caglianone. Smith picked up the ball and threw Caglianone out, but MSU’s coaches chose to take him out for precautionary reasons.

Calilao jumped ahead of reliever Mikey Tepper 2-0 before hitting a soft liner that fell in front of the center fielder for an RBI single.

Meanwhile, Sproat made quick work of the Bulldogs in the early going. He retired the side in order on just five pitches in the first. He needed just 11 pitches to toss a clean second inning.

Mississippi State didn’t pick up their first hit until the fourth inning, and Sproat stranded Hancock on first.

The Bulldogs finally got to Sproat in a 31-pitch fifth inning. Cumbest led off by hitting a 2-2 pitch into left field for a hit. Kellum Clark followed a similar script by fouling off a couple of two-strike pitches before singling up the middle.

Sproat struck out Jess Davis for the first out, but Forsythe singled to right to get the Bulldogs on the board. RJ Yeager followed by lofting a sacrifice fly to left to make it 7-2. Sproat avoided further damage by getting Kamren James to pop out to Calilao.

UF got one of those runs back in the following half inning. Langford picked up his third opposite-field hit of the game with one out, and Tepper walked Thompson. With two outs, Riopelle smashed the first pitch that he saw into the right-field corner to score Langford and make it 8-2.

Sproat then did another incredible tightrope job in the bottom of the inning to give the Gators the momentum again. Back-to-back singles put two runners on with no outs, but he escaped with a pop out and two groundouts.

“I thought Brandon Sproat threw the ball really well again,” O’Sullivan said. “He got us into the latter part of the game and made some big pitches and got the last guy to ground out on a really quality changeup down in the strike zone.”

O’Sullivan decided to mix things up a bit by having Blake Purnell come in to pitch in the seventh instead of the ninth, an inning that he’s struggled mightily in.

It didn’t make a difference. Purnell gave up three runs (but only one earned) and recorded just two outs.

Pinch hitter Aaron Downs hit a groundball up the middle for a single on a 1-2 count. Purnell fell behind Forsythe 3-0 and eventually gave up a full-count single through the right side of the infield.

Yeager grounded the first pitch that he saw to Deric Fabian at third for what should’ve been a double play. Instead, Fabian fumbled the ball. By the time he recovered, it was too late, and Yeager was safe at first to load the bases with nobody out.

James reached on a fielder’s choice to score one run, and he then stole second to put two more runners in scoring position.

Hancock grounded out to third to drive in another run, and Tanner singled up the middle to cut the lead to 8-5 and end Purnell’s brief outing.

Freshman lefty Philip Abner came in for a left-on-left matchup with Hines. Abner fell behind 2-1 but battled back to strike him out looking on a perfectly spotted slider to end the inning.

“That was big,” O’Sullivan said. “That kind of gets lost in the shuffle a little bit, but that was a huge part of the game. Left-on-left, and he came in and did his job. Obviously, that was a big out for us.”

Nick Ficarrotta took over on the mound to start the eighth, and he also didn’t last long. He fell behind Cumbest 3-1 and gave up a single off of Fabian’s glove at third. He then fell behind Clark 2-0 but got a bit lucky. His pitch missed way inside, and Clark’s natural instinct to protect himself resulted in him hitting a slow roller back to the mound. Ficarrotta fielded it and threw him out.

With Ficarrotta’s command nowhere to be found, O’Sullivan turned to Slater.

Slater’s outing couldn’t have started much worse. He walked the first two batters that he faced on just nine pitches to load the bases.

His first pitch to Yeager was a ball as well, but he got him to groundout to short, which scored a run in the process to make it 8-6.

“I like our offense,” O’Sullivan said. “I do. I’ve said that the entire year, and I think we have a chance to hit. We’ve just got to find a couple guys to contribute at the second half of the game. You’ve got a six-run lead with nine outs to go, we’ve just got to throw the ball across the plate. Everybody looks at the hits, but a lot of the hits are being given up in fastball counts.

“We’re getting to a lot of 2-0 counts, a lot of 3-1 counts. Obviously, that puts the hitter at an advantage. We’ve just got to do a better job of throwing two of the first three pitches for strikes, which we’ve been preaching the entire year.”

With the potential tying run standing on second base, Slater made a huge pitch to James and got him to fly out to right to end the inning.

Slater then stranded a runner in the ninth to nail down a very important win for the Gators.

“You’re playing on the road in front of a big crowd, and leadoff man gets on, and things kind of can get a little hectic,” O’Sullivan said. “But he did a really good job in the ninth and got the leadoff hitter and obviously finished the game there with the tying run at the plate. So, I thought he threw the ball very well.”

UF probably needs 13 regular-season SEC wins to make the NCAA Tournament. They’ll be favored to win two at Missouri next weekend and two more the following week at home against South Carolina. So, they needed to win at least one game in Starkville to position themselves to make a postseason run.

They accomplished that mission. Now they’ll try to take things a step further by clinching the series in game two on Saturday at 7:30.

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.