HOOVER, Ala.—Florida won its elimination game against Vanderbilt Friday night, 5-2, to earn a date with Alabama in the second game Saturday. It was a clinical, methodical victory for the Gators, who made big pitches every time the chips were on the line.
None of the three pitchers Florida rolled out Friday blew Vandy's hitters away with premium velocity. But all three had excellent movement on their fastballs—particularly downard movement. Sinkerballers Hudson Randall, Greg Larson and Paco Rodriguez combined to record a whopping 20 groundball outs, four of them via double plays.
Florida is still trying to work out its infield defense on the corners, and freshman Cody Dent started at third base for the second straight day and committed an error. But the Gators continue to be rock-solid up the middle, as Nolan Fontana and Josh Adams made every routine play and hooked up for a couple of slick twin killings. Fontana, the freshman shortstop with the .988 fielding percentage, showed fringy arm strength on a couple of plays, but he makes up for it with excellent actions, sure hands and by always being in the right position to field the ball. Adams could play shortstop for most teams in college baseball and is a luxury at the keystone sack.
Vanderbilt starter Jack Armstrong struggled, allowing five runs (four earned) on four hits and four walks over 4 1/3. He did not show the premium velocity he has flashed at times in his career, pitching instead with an average fastball at 90-92 mph. A couple scouts I chatted with were unimpressed by his slurvy 76-78 breaking ball. His low 80s changeup was an out pitch at times, but he also floated an 85 change (prime hitting speed) over the middle of the plate to Preston Tucker in the fifth, and Tucker turned on it for a two-run homer that cleared the right-field fence in a hurry.
Lefthander Richie Goodenow took over and shut the Gators out for 3 2/3 innings. His low three-quarters arm slot gives his 84-85 mph fastball some added life, and he effectively mixes in a mid-70s breaking ball. But Vandy's most impressive pitcher was senior righthander Drew Hayes, who struck out the side in order in the ninth—all looking. He froze Fontana and Adams with fastballs at 91 and 92 mph, then caught Tucker looking at an 82 mph slider.
Vanderbilt has plenty of quality arms and a solid lineup, but it needs Armstrong to be sharp in order to make a deep postseason run. That journey will likely start on the road, as the Commodores probably needed to do better than 1-2 at the SEC tournament to earn a hosting spot over the likes of Florida State and Connecticut, which each went 2-1 in their first three games in their respective conference tournies. And Vandy's win against a depleted Arkansas club on Wednesday does not cancel out its home series loss to the Razorbacks last weekend. Arkansas has the more impressive body of work and figures to earn the SEC's fourth home regional over the 'Dores.
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