HOOVER, Ala.—Mississippi State held a 5-2 lead on powerhouse Florida in the seventh inning Wednesday, but Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan did not think the game was out of reach. So he had a quick meeting with his hitters before they went to the plate in the bottom of the frame.
"We needed to have better at-bats," O'Sullivan said. "We had some opportunities . . . I thought if we could just put some quality at-bats together, we could make a run."
It helped that Mississippi State's pitchers struggled to throw strikes all day, combining to issue seven walks and hit a batter. A hit batsman and a walk jumpstarted a Florida rally in the fateful seventh, helping set the table for Brian Johnson's go-ahead grand slam down the right-field line. The Gators went on to a 7-5 win.
"The grand slam's not the issue; it was how those two guys got on second and third there," MSU coach John Cohen said. "I thought that was really the ballgame . . . you just can't hand a team like Florida an opportunity like that, and I thought that's what we did."
In our preseason Top 25 capsules, we graded Florida's power as a 70 on the 20-80 scale, meaning we thought it would be a major strength. Thanks largely to SEC player of the year Mike Zunino (15 homers) and junior Preston Tucker (10), the Gators did lead the conference with 53 home runs. Johnson and Austin Maddox haven't put put he kind of power numbers we expected, combining for just 10 long balls on the season, but they're both very strong, and capable of changing games with one swing. That's what Johnson did in the seventh, launching a towering fly ball down the right-field line on a thigh-high fastball from Luis Pollorena.
"When I first hit it, I thought it was definitely foul, but I remember the wind blowing out of the west," Johnson said. "When I looked up it was going straight as an arrow, so I just started running."
Just like that, a three-run deficit turned into a one-run lead. Florida's deep stable of power arms gets a lot of attention—and deservedly so—but its power potential is another reason it is one of the favorites to win the national title.
"We have some guys with Tucker, Zunino, (Tyler) Thompson, Maddox, (Josh) Adams—we've got some guys that can hit home runs," O'Sullivan said. "We don't want to rely on that, but if we get a few guys on base, get a few walks, then that works. I thought the top of our lineup did a real nice job, and that's what you need to go deep in this tournament. You have to have a solid lineup one through nine. We're getting nice contributions up and down, so if we do fall behind, there's no reason to panic."
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