Gators walk-off Gamecocks in wild SEC Tournament opener

If you just look at the box score, Tuesday evening’s SEC Tournament opening round game between No. 7 seed Florida and No. 10 seed South Carolina might seem pretty boring. The teams combined for just three runs on 10 hits with 22 strikeouts.

However, while the scoring was low, this game most certainly featured plenty of heart-stopping, edge-of-your-seat action. There was a no-hit bid carried into the seventh inning, a runner thrown out at the plate, a heads-up baserunning play to score a run, a ninth-inning comeback, a lucky bounce off of the third-base bag, a questionable decision to hold a runner at third, and, eventually, a walk off.

With runners on second and third and two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning, South Carolina reliever Cade Austin jumped ahead of Colby Halter 0-2. Halter fouled off the next pitch before finally getting one that he could do damage with. He lined a fastball on the outer part of the plate to center field. Center fielder Evan Stone charged in and made the catch, and the runner at third, Ty Evans, tagged up and sprinted for the plate.

Stone’s throw was accurate and beat Evans to the plate, and catcher Talmadge LeCroy applied the tag in time. However, as he was scooping his glove back up, the ball fell out, and Evans was correctly called safe.

Florida won 2-1 to move into the double-elimination portion of the tournament, which is scheduled to begin against No. 2 seed Texas A&M on Wednesday at 5:30 eastern time in Hoover, Alabama, though Mother Nature might have something to say about when the game will start.

Halter started off the season red hot. He entered SEC play with a .391 average and four home runs as the Gators’ leadoff man. Then, over a nearly three-week stretch in mid-April, he went on a 3-for-40 slump and eventually saw his average plummet all the way down to .235.

While Halter steadily dropped down in the batting order, coach Kevin O’Sullivan never took him out of the lineup. Halter maintained a positive attitude and found other way to help his team win, whether it be by playing stellar defense or laying down a bunt here and there.

His hard work and perseverance were rewarded with his moment in the spotlight in Hoover.

“Something that our coaches ask, and especially Chuck Jeroloman, when you’re struggling at the plate, something you can always bring is defense, and I feel like I’ve done a really good job of that,” Halter said. “Being a great teammate is something you can always do. Hustling is something you can always do. So, I really prided myself on doing those things, and good things happen to people that put in the work and do stuff like that.”

While Halter provided the winning RBI, starting pitcher Brandon Sproat was the story of the game. He only gave up two baserunners over his first 6 1/3 innings – a fielding error by shortstop Josh Rivera on the first pitch of the game and a two-out walk in the fifth. That error in the first inning was followed by a double play, meaning that Sproat entered the seventh having faced just one batter over the minimum.

Sproat needed to be dominant because Gamecocks starter Will Sanders was almost as good. Sanders struck out 10 batters and gave up just four hits in seven innings.

“That was a good old-fashioned pitching duel,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s a shame somebody’s got to lose that game. I thought both starters were just outstanding. That’s the best [Sproat’s] pitched here.”

Since Sproat took over as the Gators’ ace following Hunter Barco’s season-ending elbow injury, he’s posted a 4-0 record with a 1.65 ERA. That’s a far cry from earlier in the year when he gave up four earned runs in three innings at Alabama and five earned runs in 2 1/3 innings against LSU.

“It all goes back to his fastball command, and now he’s got different options to go to behind in the count,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s got two definitive breaking balls – his curve and his slider. If one’s not on on a certain night, he can go to the other one. He’s got a really good changeup as well, but I think it’s the mental game that he’s probably taken the biggest jump. It’s a confidence thing. He’s always had a really good arm, but the ability to be consistent week in and week out is really what’s been the biggest difference.”

UF (36-20) opened the scoring in the bottom of the fourth. With two outs and nobody on, Rivera slapped a pitch into the right-field corner for a double.

Jac Caglianone followed by hitting a chopper deep in the hole at short. Caglianone would’ve reached base easily, but shortstop Michael Braswell threw the ball anyway. His throw was way off-line and bounced in front of first baseman Kevin Madden. Madden couldn’t field the throw cleanly, and Rivera never broke stride around third base. He easily beat Madden’s throw to the plate to give the Gators the lead.

Sanders bounced back nicely after that bit of misfortune, striking out the next six Gators in a row and keeping the Gators out of the scoring column for the remainder of his outing.

“Our approach was not great tonight, and we’ll address it as a staff, but, at the same time, we’re facing a really good arm,” O’Sullivan said. “He had a lot to do with that as well.”

Josiah Sightler finally broke up Sproat’s no-hitter with a sharp groundball that snuck into right field with one out in the seventh. Sproat got Andrew Eyster to ground out back to the mound, which moved Sightler to third.

Braswell followed with a hit into left field. South Carolina’s third-base coach, Scott Wingo, waved Sightler around third. Left fielder Wyatt Langford’s throw was right on the money, and catcher BT Riopelle made the tag in plenty of time to keep the perilous lead intact.

“Brandon pitched his butt off all night, so we really wanted to win it for him,” Halter said. “This tournament’s a big deal, so we knew we could close it out, and we’re really glad I got to do it.”

Sproat struck out two batters in the eighth and left O’Sullivan with a difficult decision to make. His pitch count was at 97, but South Carolina (27-28) hadn’t generated much of anything against him outside of the one inning where the runner was thrown out at the plate. Plus, in a tournament setting where they’re going to possibly have to play a game every day through the weekend, it’s nice to preserve as many arms as possible.

O’Sullivan sent Sproat back to the mound to start the ninth, and things started out well when Madden popped out to second.

Then Braylen Wimmer singled up the middle, and Sightler followed with a single to put runners on the corners.

O’Sullivan finally went to the bullpen and brought in closer Ryan Slater to hopefully induce a game-ending double play.

Slater got Eyster to hit the groundball that they were looking for. Unfortunately for the Gators, it was a slow chopper that they could only turn into one out. Wimmer scored to tie the game.

Eyster stole second to put the potential go-ahead run in scoring position, but Slater struck out Braswell to end the inning.

Sproat finished with just the one earned run allowed on four hits in a career-high 8 1/3 innings. He struck out seven batters and walked just one.

“To know where Brandon started from his freshman year to where he is now, it’s just awesome, and this is why you get into this profession – to hopefully help guys get better and see the progress that they’ve made,” O’Sullivan said. “He was certainly special tonight.”

Slater retired the Gamecocks quickly in the top of the 10th to set the stage for the drama in the bottom half.

With one out, Evans hit a sharp groundball down the third baseline. The Gamecocks were in a no-doubles defense, so third baseman Jalen Vasquez was in position to make the play. Instead, the ball deflected off of the bag and shot over his head for a double.

With Kris Armstrong 0-for-3, O’Sullivan went to his bench and inserted Kendrick Calilao as a pinch hitter. Calilao was hitting just .216 for the season at the time, but he’s had a knack for delivering clutch hits throughout his career, such as his walk-off home run against Florida State in 2021.

Calilao came through again, this time with a groundball that just snuck under Wimmer’s glove and trickled into shallow center field. Evans didn’t get the greatest jump, but he rounded third and made it about halfway to home plate before third-base coach Craig Bell gave him the stop sign. Stone’s throw probably would’ve gotten him out if it had been accurate. Unfortunately for the Gators, his throw sailed way over LeCroy’s head, which made Bell look really bad.

Calilao advanced to second base on the overthrow to the plate. With still just one out, South Carolina had a tough choice to make. Would they pitch to the struggling Halter and take their chances that he wouldn’t hit a ball in the air, or would they intentionally walk him to set up a force out at any base but with the scorching hot Langford coming up to bat?

Of course, they chose the former option, and it would’ve worked out if not for LeCroy dropping the ball.

The Gators very easily could’ve lost this game, and perhaps they would have a month or two ago. The fact that they fought back after striking out a million times and blowing the lead in the ninth is a testament to how much this team has grown mentally over the past few weeks. Now they’ve got to keep it going against the SEC West champion Aggies on Wednesday.

“Any team that’s successful at the end of the year is going to go through stretches where they struggle, and that adversity is certainly going to help any team moving forward,” O’Sullivan said. “I go back to [2017], we opened SEC play against Auburn when we won the national championship, and we got swept on the road to open up SEC play.

“Those scars, so to speak, they help you at this time of the year, and, hopefully, we’ve learned our lesson, and we have gotten better.”

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.