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|GAME AT A
Point: Vanderbilt seemed to have all the momentum after overcoming a three-run deficit to tie the score at 4-4 in the top of the eighth. But the Commodores left Sonny Gray out there for the bottom of the frame, and Daniel Pigott led off with a sharp single to center field. That put the Gators in business. After two perfectly placed bunts, Florida had the bases loaded with no outs, and it wound up scoring twice in the inning to go ahead for good.
OMAHA—Florida was nine outs from the College World Series Finals with a three-run lead. Alex Panteliodis had held Vanderbilt to just a run on three hits over six sterling innings, and the Gators turned the game over to college baseball’s most talented bullpen to start the seventh. The lead seemed pretty secure.
“A.P. did his job, and we trust our bullpen,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “If we had the same situation again, we’re going to do the same exact thing. It worked out that it got situational, but what do you expect? You’re playing Vanderbilt. This is the last game of the year. We didn’t think it was going to be easy.”
Vanderbilt stormed back against a succession of power relievers, scoring two runs in the seventh and another in the eighth to tie the score at 4-4.
But Florida didn’t fold when Mississippi State was on the verge of upsetting the top-ranked Gators in super regionals, and Florida didn’t fold in the face of adversity Friday. The Gators minimized the damage in the seventh and eighth by getting Vandy to leave the bases loaded in each frame, and they answered back with two runs in the bottom of the eighth to pull out an ultra-intense 6-4 win, sending them to next week’s CWS Finals.
“Vanderbilt, they’re a great team, and you know they’re going to get after it every time you face them,” Florida shortstop Nolan Fontana said. “They’re extremely competitive, just like we are. We got on the winning side of things five times out of six this year, and that’s just the way it worked out.”
Nearly all of the six Florida-Vandy meetings were similarly competitive. Four of Florida’s five wins against the Commodores were decided by two runs, and one of them lasted 12 innings.
So of course Vanderbilt battled back from that three-run deficit to create a game filled with enough tension to fray every nerve in TD Ameritrade Park Omaha.
“There’s no complaints with the effort level of the kids,” Vandy coach Tim Corbin said. “We did everything we possibly could; there were some things that we didn’t handle maybe appropriately. But, you know, when you’ve got kids that are willing to battle the way we did and come back they way we did—I don’t think many people thought at 4-1 that we would. But we did, and gave ourselves a shot. And they just got us at the end.”
The Gators made Vanderbilt All-American and first-round pick Sonny Gray work hard throughout the game. They rapped out 12 hits and drew five walks against him in seven-plus innings, putting men aboard in every frame—and multiple men on base in six different frames. Gray pitched out of trouble often by recording eight strikeouts, but he certainly wasn’t breezing through Florida’s order.
Which is why it was puzzling that the Commodores sent him back out after they tied the game in a long top of the eighth. Gray was up to 125 pitches—but Corbin and pitching coach Derek Johnson felt more comfortable sticking with their ace than going to their ‘pen, in a striking contrast with Florida’s supreme trust in its bullpen.
“I don’t care what the number of pitches was,” Corbin said. “He wanted to go back out there. That’s all there is to it. You’re not going to take the ball away from him or else you’re going to fight him; rather give him the ball and let him pitch.”
After Daniel Pigott singled to start the bottom of the eighth, Vandy left the extremely athletic Gray on the mound in an obvious bunt situation. But Cody Dent and Nolan Fontana each followed with bunt singles to load the bases with no outs. Third baseman Jason Esposito failed to make the play on the first bunt, and Gray tried and failed to get the force at third on the second bunt—a play he had executed successfully in the second inning.
“Sonny’s one of the best athletes in our league, and he’s made that play numerous times,” O’Sullivan said. “He covers a lot of ground on the third-base side. And I think that our bunts were more toward the line, which kind of helped us. But if they were not located, Sonny probably gets the lead runner all those times—he’s that good of an athlete.”
That’s when Vanderbilt finally went to its bullpen. After a pop-out, Preston Tucker drove an RBI single—which was played brilliantly by left fielder Tony Kemp—to the base of the wall, and another run scored on a wild pitch.
This time, Vanderbilt did not have an answer.
Closer Austin Maddox, who had been sidelined since the May 29 SEC title game against Vandy by a sprained foot, had inherited a jam in the eighth inning—when he hit Conrad Gregor with the bases loaded to tie the score, then got two outs to keep the score tied. The ninth was much less eventful, as Maddox worked around a two-out double by Aaron Westlake to record the save.
Vanderbilt pushed the Gators to the brink—but so did Mississippi State, which held a 6-4 lead in the seventh inning of the third game of the super regional before the Gators rallied back.
“I think there’s been things that happened this year,” O’Sullivan said. “Our backs have been to the wall, and we’ve responded.”
So has Vanderbilt—including on Friday, when its spirited comeback just wasn’t enough to beat nemesis Florida. Now the greatest team in Vandy history finds its season suddenly over. Getting to the College World Series for the first time ever will be a great thing for the program in the long run—but Corbin was in no mood for thinking about the future.
“You can’t think forward right now,” Corbin said. “Right now I want to take my phone and computer and dump it in the Tennessee River and just spend some time with these guys, because this is the toughest moment a coach and players can go through.
“You know, I’ve always said it’s a car that’s going 100 miles an hour and slams on the brakes. Tomorrow they’re all gone. That part stinks. That’s not fun—that’s not fun at all. I just hate to see it come to an end. But it does.”