If you didn’t know any better, you would’ve thought the South Florida Bulls were the No. 15 national seed in the NCAA Tournament and the Florida Gators were the team that barely snuck into the tournament field.
You name a mistake you can make in a baseball game, and there’s a good chance that the Gators made it on Friday afternoon.
Starting pitcher Tommy Mace surrendered two home runs. A passed ball and a wild pitch in the same inning gave the Bulls an unearned run. Two errors on the same play gave them another unearned run in the next inning. UF went just 2-for-10 with runners in scoring position.
More than anything, the Gators looked lethargic, like they had already chalked this one up as a win and were ready for a likely rivalry battle with Miami the following day. There was zero energy in the dugout. Given the stakes, that’s extremely disappointing, to say the least.
South Florida took advantage of the comedy of errors to defeat UF 5-3. Don’t let the final two-run margin fool you, though. This wasn’t an upset. This was a butt-kicking.
UF (38-21, 17-13 SEC) will play the loser of the second game between South Alabama and Miami in an elimination game on Saturday at noon.
“I don’t think you can point to one thing that caused us to lose the game,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “I think it was multiple things. We didn’t pitch very well to start the game, and then, obviously, when we came back from the rain delay, we made two major mistakes that made a difference in the ballgame.
“We had some defensive mistakes, we had some mental mistakes, we had some offensive things, too.”
O’Sullivan said the coaches are to blame for the way they played on Friday. Clearly, they didn’t play as well as they anticipated.
“We have had a really hard time of maintaining momentum, and it’s our job to get these guys going,” he said. “We are in the postseason, so you’ve got to play your best baseball at this time of the year, and, obviously, we did not do that today.”
The Gators put their first two runners of the game on base against USF starter Jack Jasiak via a Jacob Young single and a four-pitch walk to Nathan Hickey. In what set the tone for the game, two popouts and a flyout ended the threat and prevented the Gators from sending an early message.
Mace struggled with his breaking ball command, which allowed the Bulls (29-27, 14-14 American Athletic) to tee-off on his fastball.
Jake Sullivan led off the top of the second with a single through the left side. With two outs, Nelson Rivera doubled into the left field corner. Young couldn’t field the ball cleanly, which allowed Sullivan to race around from first to give the Bulls the 1-0 lead.
In the third inning, Riley Hogan hit a deep and high fly ball to right field. Sterlin Thompson leapt at the wall and made the catch but couldn’t hang on when his body hit the wall on the way down. It landed over the fence to make it 2-0.
Florida sliced the lead in half in the bottom of the frame. Mac Guscette led off with a single through the left side. Young replaced him on the basepaths by grounding into a fielder’s choice. Hickey doubled to the wall in right center to score Young without a throw.
“I feel like some people just didn’t come to play today,” Hickey said. “I felt good out there, and I’m sure a bunch of other people did. But there’s just some times other guys are not mentally there. I think tomorrow is going to be something that we’re just going to have to prove how good we are. In my eyes, we’re the most talented team in the nation.”
Jud Fabian then crushed a 2-2 fastball in the following at bat, but left fielder Jarrett Eaton caught it just in front of the wall.
Kris Armstrong tapped an opposite-field single against the shift to put runners on the corners with two outs, but Jasiak struck out Kendrick Calilao swinging on a full-count to end the inning.
In the fifth, Bulls leadoff batter Carmine Lane destroyed an 0-1 fastball from Mace that sailed over the bullpen in left field and probably landed dangerously close to Hull Road.
Once again, Hickey got the Gators back into the game in the bottom of the inning. Guscette opened the inning with a double off of the fence in front of the left field bullpen. Hickey drove him in with an opposite-field single against the shift to cut the deficit to 3-2.
A fielder’s choice and an error put a runner in scoring position with two outs, but Armstrong struck out swinging.
“We didn’t start off with that edge that we usually do,” Armstrong said. “We have been playing as a team and together. I think, unfortunately, there were a few things that didn’t go our way. I thought we were hitting balls hard and right at people.”
Then lightning struck within an eight-mile radius of Florida Ballpark, and a pouring rain eventually followed. Rather than using the two-hours-and-18-minutes delay to regroup and come out firing, things got even worse when the game resumed.
Christian Scott replaced Mace on the mound for the restart. Mace was tagged with the loss after surrendering three earned runs on four hits in five innings. He walked one batter and struck out four.
Scott surrendered a leadoff double into the left field corner to Sullivan to lead off the sixth. A cross-up with Guscette resulted in a passed ball that moved Sullivan to third. A wild pitch in the next at bat scored him to make it 4-2.
Scott ended up striking out the next three batters, but the two mistake pitches cost him an unearned run.
With one out in the seventh, Lane lined a pitch into the left center gap. Fabian ran it down but dropped the ball. Fabian scooped it up and fired it back into the infield. It got past shortstop Josh Rivera, and neither Scott nor Calilao backed it up, which allowed Lane to make it all the way to third. Fabian was tagged with both a fielding error and a throwing error on the play.
Hogan made UF’s defense pay by grounding a single through the left side of the drawn-in infield to make it 5-2.
Meanwhile, the Gators couldn’t get much going against South Florida reliever Dylan Burns. He gave up just one hit in three innings, a home run to right field by Armstrong in the eighth.
Colby Halter doubled into the right field corner off of Orion Kerkering in the bottom of the ninth, but Kerkering struck out pinch-hitter Kirby McMullen to secure the win for the Bulls.
The Gators now have their backs squarely against the wall. They’ll need to win four games in a row to win the regional. That’s a tall task for any team, but it’s especially daunting for a team that only has six pitchers that it trusts, and three of them pitched on Friday.
“You’ve got to put it behind you,” O’Sullivan said. “You’ve got to flush it. There’s nothing you can do. It’s not like we can redo a few things that may have cost us some runs in the latter part of the game and the beginning part of the game.”
The Gators insist that they’ll rebound emotionally and be ready to make a run at this improbable comeback.
“It’s not great to lose ever,” Armstrong said. “I don’t like losing. I know my teammates don’t like losing. I think it will light a fire under us, and I think we will come out hot tomorrow, and we’ll be a different team for sure.”
It’s now or never.