With their backs against the wall and an 11 year run of making the NCAA Tournament on life support, tension boiled over for the Florida Gators on Thursday night.
In the seventh inning Paul Gomez grounded a ball back to Tommy Mace with the bases loaded. The sophomore starter fielded it cleanly and threw to home where Brady Smith was standing with a foot on the plate ready to make the force out. Missouri catcher Chad McDaniel slid close to, but not making contact with, Smith’s foot. It’s a vulnerable situation for a catcher, something McDaniel is familiar with. Mace took exception to the play and let it be known. That resulted in a shove and before long both benches cleared.
Kevin O’Sullivan said he was “not pleased” with how that played out but he had to be thrilled with the way his team held on to a 5-4 win on the road, just the second road conference win of the season for the Gators.
This team needed something good to happen and this was one we needed to pull out. It would have been deflating to lose this ballgame, and say ‘Here we go again.’ The same thing that’s happened throughout the year. They battled and they fought. I thought we fought like heck against Tennessee, I had hoped that this team would have figured out the competitive spirit that it takes to play in this league a little sooner, but they certainly have shown some fight the last couple weekends.”
Missouri would score first but the Gators pressed the action in the fifth inning. Wil Dalton led off with a double and Cory Acton, who misplayed a ball in the fourth led to a Tiger run, cleaned the bases with a towering home run to right field. Jacob Young followed with a single and center fielder Jud Fabian launched a no-doubter to straightaway center field. With a 4-1 lead Mace bore down, retiring six of the next seven batters he faced.
Florida tacked on an insurance run in the top of the sixth. Brady Smith walked, advanced to second on a wild pitch and then score from second due to miscommunication between the pitcher and catcher on another wild pitch. That blunder proved to be the difference in runs.
The seventh inning wasn’t kind to the Gators. Mace surrendered back-to-back singles and then walked Tony Ortiz to load the bases. The next batter caused the benches clearing scuffle and Missouri used that as momentum. Mace walked in a run and two runs scored when Jacob Young couldn’t come up with a soft line drive two batters later.
“Tommy pitched really good. He fell apart in the [seventh], gave up three,” O’Sullivan said. “We had Brumfield on a 1-2 count and ended up walking him. We’ve got to throw the ball across the plate there … All in all, we had lost those games throughout the whole year so it was good to see us come out on the winning side.”
The win can be largely credited to Jordan Butler, who replaced Mace in the seventh inning and would throw a scoreless 2.1 innings on the way to his first save of the season.
Butler is one of only two left-handed pitcher at Sully’s disposal but hasn’t had a great season.
“We went to the pen yesterday and had a pen session, quite frankly a heart-to-heart, about some things he needed to change in his delivery, raise his slot and change his front side a little bit,” O’Sullivan said after the game. “Talked about his lead leg a little bit. So it was a lot thrown at him yesterday in the pen, really gave him an ultimatum, for lack of a better term.”
The message was received. Butler was locked in and needed just 31 pitches (23 strikes) to close the game out.
The Gators are in a situation where every game is do or die. If Florida can somehow sweep Missouri they will likely make the NCAA Tournament as an at large bid. Florida hasn’t missed the postseason since 2007.
The Gators and Tigers will meet again Friday night at 7:30.