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|GAME AT A GLANCE|
|Turning Point: The Golden Flashes were the aggressors starting in the first inning, jumping on a laboring Hudson Randall for a run and never looking back. Nolan Fontana, of all people, booted a routine ground ball to jump-start the rally, and an overheated Randall wound up exiting after the frame. From that point through the fifth inning, Kent State was the clear aggressor.
The Hero: The heat was too much for Randall, but Kent State righthander Ryan Bores managed to hold the nation’s most powerful lineup to just two runs on six hits over six innings of work. He pitched to contact, keeping his pitch count to just 80, which was critical in the 95-degree heat. “He was outstanding,” Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said. “Ryan’s not a strikeout guy . . . Ryan threw it in the zone and let the guys make the plays behind him.”
You Might Have Missed: Mike Zunino did everything he could to extend his standout Florida career. Even facing a four-run deficit, Zunino maintained a disciplined approach at the plate. Rather than trying to rip a three-run homer with two men on in the third, he punched a 3-and-2 pitch back through the middle for an RBI single. He went back up the middle for another RBI single in the seventh, then walked in the ninth to move the tying run into scoring position.
OMAHA—The script called for the plucky Northern upstarts to bow out gracefully against the team that was supposed to be one of the great powerhouses in modern college baseball history.
Kent State knew it was supposed to be happy to be here. But the Golden Flashes rejected that storyline. In Monday’s elimination game against Florida, it was clear from the outset that the Flashes were loose, focused, confident and crisp, while the mighty Gators were out of sync. Even when the tide shifted in the late innings, Kent State maintained its composure and held on for a 5-4 win.
It was one of the more striking upsets in recent College World Series annals. The Gators were making their third straight trip to Omaha. They were the overwhelming choice for preseason No. 1, and they entered the postseason as the No. 1 national seed. With a roster that includes a pair of first-round picks, eight players drafted in the top 10 rounds, and loads of Omaha experience, Florida entered the CWS as a strong national title favorite, and an even stronger favorite Monday against a Kent State team making its first-ever Series appearance and coming off an uninspiring 8-1 loss against Arkansas on Saturday.
“The most important thing that we wanted as a team and as a program and as a university was to make a statement that we belong here,” Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said. “We’re not a fluke. We’re a really good baseball team. That is the biggest win in school history.”
Stricklin properly labeled his players “the aggressors” against the Gators. He wanted his team to relax and have fun, and he later said that he did not detect any tension in the early innings. Instead, the Gators looked tense from the very start of the game.
“We kind of used the Cinderella story to our advantage,” Kent State senior catcher David Lyon said. “Maybe they just got caught thinking about their next game. We had to jump on them early and kind of shock them with that.”
The Golden Flashes smelled blood from the first pitch that Florida ace Hudson Randall threw in the bottom of the first inning. “The first pitch of the game, Evan Campbell hit it into the gap and hit it pretty good,” Stricklin said. “He came back and said, ‘He’s not throwing very hard.’ So our guys were seeing the ball pretty good.”
The next batter, Jimmy Rider, hit a routine ground ball to shortstop, and Nolan Fontana—one of college baseball’s most sure-handed defenders over the last three years—booted it. That was a clear indication that maybe the Gators weren’t quite right.
“I knew I hit it hard. I was wondering where the throw was, and I didn’t know what was happening, so I snuck a look at the board and saw his throw was high,” Rider said. “I thought, ‘That’s a rarity,’ and the fact that we got a run out of it, it was a big lift for us.”
That run came two batters later on George Roberts’ RBI single to right. That prompted a mound visit from Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan, as Randall was struggling with the mid-90s heat. Officially, it was the hottest game-time temperature at a CWS game since 2001—but the team that plays its home games in Gainesville was affected more than the team from Eastern Ohio.
The overheated Randall had to exit after the first, and the Golden Flashes jumped on replacement Jonathon Crawford for three runs in the second to take a commanding 4-0 lead. Kent State’s three biggest stars—Rider, Lyon and Roberts—each delivered RBI singles to punctuate that rally. That trio went a combined 7-for-14 with three runs and four RBIs in the game to give starter Ryan Bores plenty of support.
Bores, who spent time between innings with an ice-filled plastic bag resting atop his head in the dugout, pitched to contact and held Florida’s dangerous offense to just two runs in six innings. He recorded 11 flyball outs, including six pop-ups, taking advantage of a Florida lineup that appeared antsy.
But Florida is too good and too experienced to go down without a fight. The Gators trailed 5-1 heading into the sixth—and that’s when they finally started to get their offense going, perhaps partly in response to a between-innings huddle in the dugout.
“We were not going to lay down today,” O’Sullivan said. “The only thing you can ask of your team is to play hard, battle and compete, and my team did that today.”
The Gators chipped away at the deficit with a run in the sixth against Bores, then two more in the seventh against reliever Brian Clark.
The Kent State bullpen had an adventurous weekend in the Eugene Super Regional last weekend, and the unit took the Golden Flashes for another white-knuckle thrill ride in the ninth. Lefthander Michael Clark started the frame with six straight balls, and righty Josh Pierce followed with five more before finally throwing a strike. By that point, Preston Tucker and Mike Zunino were aboard with nobody out, and Florida trailing by just a run.
After a sacrifice bunt and a hit batsman, Florida had the bases loaded with one out. Casey Turgeon worked the count full and was rung up by the third-base umpire on a check swing. Then Justin Shafer flew out to right field to end it.
“I don’t think I was very nervous,” Rider said of the anxious ninth. “Probably more mad and annoyed with our pitchers. But they found a way to get it done and made it interesting, so all the better.”
It was the most tension-packed moment yet in the 2012 College World Series, but the gritty underdogs did not bow to the pressure, in the end.
“It wasn’t the prettiest thing in the end,” Stricklin said. “It was gut-wrenching, no matter who you were rooting for. Even if you weren’t rooting for anybody, that was tough to watch. But we’ve found a way. That’s what this team has done all year long, and we’re still here.”
And Florida is not.
O’Sullivan, Zunino and Tucker handled their disappointment with grace and class in the postgame interview session, giving credit to the Golden Flashes and avoiding any finger-pointing. Florida’s junior class was one of the most heralded in recent memory, and it had the potential to be remembered among the great classes in college baseball history. With no national championship, this group of players fell short of securing that kind of legacy—but it still made three trips to Omaha, including a runner-up finish last year.
“They’ve been great players, but more importantly, they’ve been a great representation of what we want in this program,” O’Sullivan said. “I think they’ve done the right thing both on and off the field.”
Florida could have achieved more, and an 0-2 showing in Omaha is unquestionably a significant disappointment. For three innings—the ninth in Saturday’s loss to South Carolina and the first two Monday—the Gators played embarrassing baseball, making four errors and giving up six unearned runs. They eventually found themselves against Kent State, fighting back from a four-run deficit, but it proved to be too late.
“Our guys hung in there right to the last out,” O’Sullivan said. “So we have nothing to be ashamed of, but Kent State just did a little bit more today and deserved the win.”