The Gators threw five freshmen pitchers on the mound in their winners’ bracket game against Oklahoma on Saturday night, and the results weren’t pretty.
They combined to walk seven batters, give up four home runs, throw two wild pitches, hit a batter and commit a balk. Starter Brandon Neely didn’t make it out of the third inning.
Every time that the Gators scored, the Sooners responded with at least one run of their own in the following half inning.
That type of pitching performance wasn’t anywhere near good enough for UF to beat a team of Oklahoma’s caliber. The Sooners won, 9-4, at Condron Ballpark to send the Gators into the losers’ bracket.
“We had a Zoom call [on Friday] with [Mike] Zunino, Paco Rodriguez, Tommy Toledo, Hudson Randall, Vickash Ramjit,” coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “I knew that at some point our young freshmen were going to have to fill in some important moments this weekend. Those guys were all freshmen in 2010 and obviously had a chance to go to Omaha and the following year got to the finals against South Carolina.
“The biggest message from those guys to our team was staying in the moment, not letting the game speed up on you. Unfortunately, it just kind of sped up on us a little bit tonight.”
The Gators (40-23) will face some improbable odds to make it out of this regional. They must defeat Central Michigan on Sunday afternoon in an elimination game and then come back a few hours later and beat Oklahoma (39-20). They would then have to win a winner-take-all game against Oklahoma on Monday.
And they’ll have to win those three games with only one of their weekend starters still available to start, though Neely could probably come back in a relief role on Monday if needed.
Catcher Jimmy Crooks led Oklahoma’s offense with two home runs, three hits and three RBI, while Peyton Graham, Tanner Tredaway and Kendall Pettis all recorded two hits.
Sterlin Thompson (3-for-4) accounted for nearly half of Florida’s eight hits.
The game started out promisingly for the Gators. Neely put up zeroes in the first two innings, and Ty Evans and Jac Caglianone crushed no-doubters in the bottom of the second off of Sooners starter David Sandlin.
The following half inning ended up being Neely’s demise. He consistently fell behind in counts, and the Sooners made him pay for it.
Neely walked Pettis on four pitches to lead off the inning and then gave up a towering home run to Graham with one out that landed outside of the stadium. Blake Robertson followed with a mammoth shot into the UF bullpen in right-center field to give Oklahoma a 3-2 lead.
“It seemed like every time we had some momentum and we put a run on the board, we turned around and gave it back up the next inning,” O’Sullivan said. “From that standpoint, it was difficult and disappointing.”
Neely walked Tredaway and fell behind Crooks 1-0, and that was all that O’Sullivan could stand to watch.
He brought in Fisher Jameson out of the bullpen, and Crooks lined his first pitch into the right-field corner for a double. Jameson walked Wallace Clark to load the bases.
Then came some controversy. During Jackson Nicklaus’ at bat, Jameson threw a pitch in the dirt that got away from catcher Mac Guscette and squirted away slowly toward UF’s dugout. Guscette tried to get to the ball and prevent the runner on third from scoring, but Nicklaus got in his way and prevented him from getting there in time. Tredaway raced home to score without a throw.
O’Sullivan argued that interference should’ve been called on Nicklaus. The umpires talked it over for a minute or two but ultimately decided to let the call stand.
O’Sullivan said that the umpires told him that there would be no interference call because the contact wasn’t intentional, even though the rule book doesn’t list intent as being necessary for an interference call.
Jameson ended up getting out of the inning without giving up any more runs.
It felt like the additional run that was allowed to score on the controversial wild pitch was going to be a key factor in the outcome of the game. The umpires were booed by the crowd of 5,000 for the next several innings, and Nicklaus was booed and heckled every time he stepped up to the plate for the remainder of the game.
As it turned out, whether that play was officiated correctly or not became irrelevant. Oklahoma just kept pouring on runs.
Pettis led off the fourth with a single to left. He stole second, advanced to third on a balk and scored on another wild pitch by Jameson.
Crooks belted a solo shot off of Tyler Nesbitt in the fifth to make it 6-2.
UF’s last real chance to get back into the game came in the sixth. Thompson singled to left center with one out. BT Riopelle followed with a single through the right side. Thompson successfully advanced to third, and Riopelle alertly took second on the throw.
Florida got one run on Evans’ sacrifice fly to deep center, but Jud Fabian flew out to center to end the rally.
Moments later, Crooks crushed his second long ball of the night, this one a long two-run shot off of Nick Ficarrotta.
“Postseason ball, it’s momentum-based,” Riopelle said. “They had a lot of fire in their dugout, as we did, too. They just had a little bit more of it tonight.”
Guscette scored the Gators’ final run with a homer in the bottom of the seventh off of Chazz Martinez, and Tredaway hit an RBI single off of Philip Abner in the ninth to complete the scoring.
Facing elimination isn’t ideal, but the Gators will try to draw upon their experience at the SEC Tournament last week. In that event, they lost their first game in the double-elimination round and then rattled off three wins in a row to make it to the championship game.
They’ll face a similar situation on Sunday, but with one obvious difference – their season will be over with one more loss.
“It’s kind of like a mother and her child,” Riopelle said. “We’re going to do everything to protect our child, and that’s our season right now.”