Opportunity lost

Florida’s Road to Omaha took a hit Saturday afternoon when the Gators turned a very winnable game into a nasty game one loss to Southern Mississippi in the NCAA Super Regional at McKethan Stadium. File this one under opportunity lost. Instead of riding in the fast lane to Omaha, the Gators are at least temporarily on the side of the road, waiting for AAA to come change the flat tire.

Instead of a 1-0 lead in the best of three series, the Gators painted themselves into a rather dangerous corner with their 9-7 loss to the Golden Eagles and to work their way out of this situation, they’ll have to find a way to beat Todd McInniss Sunday afternoon. He’s the ace of the Southern Miss pitching staff and the Conference USA Pitcher of the Year, so this won’t be easy.

And if the Gators win, they’ve still got work to do on Monday.

“There’s nothing we can do about today’s game,” said Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan. “ We’ve got to learn from it. We’ll watch the game tape and try to make some adjustments. They, this one is over with but we’re not out. We’ve had our backs against the wall the entire year so it’s not something we’re not used to.”

Yes, the Gators have battled back before and they’re used to playing their way out of tough situations but there isn’t any good reason why they should be battling back. As well as Southern Miss played to wiggle out of some extremely difficult situations, the Golden Eagles couldn’t have won this one without help from the Gators, who had chances to put together some big innings that would have put this one away.

Take the fourth inning for example. After a 59-minute rain delay, the Gators pounced on Southern Miss starter J.R. Ballinger for four runs to take a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the third. Stephen Locke gave the Gators plenty of momentum in the top of the fourth when he got a tapper back to the mound and consecutive strikeouts for a 1-2-3 inning.  When the Gators came to bat, they promptly loaded the bases, sending Ballinger to the showers and bringing on reliever Cody Schlagel.

The Gators should have busted this game wide open but Mike Mooney took a called third strike for out one and Avery Barnes hit a one-hopper to first that was turned into a step on the base, throw it home for the tag double-play.  It was a bang-bang play at the plate, one that might have gone the other way another time and another day but home plate ump Jeff Henrichs called it an out, ending the inning and the threat.

When you get to Super Regionals in NCAA Tournament play, the last thing you can afford to do is shoot blanks when you have nobody out and the bases full. The Gators almost had Southern Miss on life support but instead of a line drive up the middle that would have had the buzzards circling over the Southern Miss dugout, the Gators gave in all too meekly.

By escaping the way they did, the Golden Eagles got a welcome shot of adrenaline. They were like the heavyweight boxer that realizes his opponent is all punched out. They came to life with a three-run retort in the top of the fifth, getting plenty of help from the Gators who contributed a Mooney error and a Patrick Keating wild pitch to the rally.

“Whether it was the pitching not coming through or the bats going cold for a couple of innings, we couldn’t momentum up for more than an inning or two to put that game away early,” said Florida catcher Teddy Foster, whose two-run homer to right field was the big blow in a four-run Florida third.

In their half of the fifth, the Gators once again loaded the bases with nobody out but they managed only two runs. Again, it should have been a huge inning, perhaps enough to put the Golden Eagles away, but the Gators couldn’t deliver line drives when they were needed most. One run came in when Brandon McArthur was hit by a pitch with one out and the second run came home when Tyler Thompson’s long foul ball was turned into a sacrifice fly.

The rally killer was out one when Matt den Dekker popped out to shortstop, extending his streak of hitless at-bats with the bases loaded this season to eight. If you’re going ride the road all the way to Omaha, your veteran number five hitter can’t be hanging bagels all season when the sacks are full of Gators.

Florida had one more opportunity in the bottom of the ninth, but a bang-bang out call on a force play at second by umpire Kelly Gonzales helped kill momentum. If he called Barnes safe, the Gators might have rallied to at least tie. The out sucked the life out of a rally before it even got going. The Gators did pick up a run with two outs on a den Dekker single up the middle, but it was another one of those might have been innings instead of one of Florida’s patented walk-off rallies.

The two close calls — the early one at home, the other at second in the ninth — are the type that maybe go Florida’s way some other day but in reality, the Gators should have never been in the situation where they needed calls to go their way to win this game. Give Southern Miss all the credit in the world for hanging in there and finding escape routes when their world was ready to collapse. The Eagles showed the poise of a ball club that expects to win and they came through with all the right plays at just the right moment.

Southern Mississippi is playing in its first Super Regional ever but the Golden Eagles have been in the NCAA Tournament seven straight years. Saturday afternoon they played like a team that’s been there and done that before.

The Gators, on the other hand, played like a team that is all too new to this experience. It was like they were too busy watching the scenery on the Road to Omaha instead of paying attention to the danger lurking on the highway. Losing Saturday wasn’t the equivalent of rolling the car into the ditch but it was like a flat tire that put them on the side of the road and required help from AAA.

Sunday, the Gators will either show that this was just a temporary delay or that their trip to Omaha has been postponed because the car had to be towed into the shop.

Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.