Mike Rivera was hitless when he walked up to the plate in the ninth inning of a 1-1 ball game. The freshman had walked twice and struck out once and was now facing a hard throwing left-hander in Jesse Stallings, who hadn’t allowed a home run all season.
Rivera fell behind in the count 1-2 but connected with a fastball, sending it high into left-center and over the wall. The first home run the Gators have hit this week in Hoover, Alabama — and just the third of the season for Rivera — gave Florida (43-16) a 2-1 lead in the final frame and proved to be the winning run over LSU (48-10).
The game matched up two freshmen. The Florida Gators sent Alex Faedo to the mound to face the reigning SEC Freshman of the year in Alex Lange.
Lange got two quick outs in the first frame before losing command. He walked Richie Martin, hit Josh Tobias and walked Pete Alonso before LSU manager Paul Mainieri came out to try and settle his freshman down. It worked — Lange got JJ Schwarz to pop up harmlessly to end the top of the first.
Faedo outdueled his counter part, getting out of the first surrendering just one hit, but would falter in the second.
Kade Scivicque smoked a ball down the left field line that found chalk and resulted in a leadoff double. Andrew Stevenson singled to give the Tigers runners on the corners with no outs. Kevin O’Sullivan came out to the mound to talk to Faedo, as Florida sent three pitchers racing to the bullpen in panic mode. Faedo induced to pop ups to Richie Martin but conceded a two-out single to Jared Foster, giving LSU a 1-0 lead.
Florida would have their chances. Lange walked a career-high six batters over seven innings of shutout baseball. The freshman ended his night with a strikeout on his 100th pitch and LSU turned to a bullpen that had been lights out in Hoover.
Meanwhile, Florida closer Taylor Lewis had entered the game in the fifth inning and dazzled. The junior college transfer inherited two runners and two outs but only needed one pitch to get out of the jam. Lewis allowed a single to start he sixth inning but that is all he would concede on the day, retiring the next 12 batters he faced.
Josh Tobias led the eighth inning off with a single into left field and Alonso walked right after him. That was all she wrote for Zac Person. Hunter Newman entered the game and promptly fell behind Schwarz, 2-0. The freshman — who has been on fire in his first SEC Tournament appearance — crushed a ball off of the wall in center field to score Tobias but Alonso ran through a stop sign at third base and was tagged out. LSU right fielder Mark Laird instinctually ran in to second base, where catcher Kade Scivicque fired to him to catch Schwarz off the bag — a game-tying, RBI double turned double play.
Harrison Bader’s single three pitches later poured salt in the wound as the Gators watched what should have been the go-ahead hit result in nothing.
Rivera’s home run in the ninth inning was just his third of the season and the first Florida has hit in the SEC Tournament. Lewis worked a clean ninth to send Florida to the SEC Championship.
The Florida Gators have won the SEC tournament six times and will look to make it seven against a Vanderbilt team they took two games from in Nashville earlier this month.
Florida and Vanderbilt will play at 3:30 pm EST on ESPN2 on Sunday afternoon.