By The Associated Press
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Preston Tucker and Florida powered their way to another appearance in the College World Series.
The junior right fielder hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the seventh inning to give the Gators an 8-6 victory against Mississippi State in the deciding Game 3 of the NCAA Super Regional on Sunday. The Gators are going to the CWS in Omaha, Neb., for the seventh time.
Tucker drove a 3-1 pitch from Mississippi State reliever Caleb Reed to center field to erase a 6-4 deficit. It was his eighth career postseason homer, a Florida record and one better than Mario Linares hit during his career from 1988-91.
“I got a change-up up I could handle and put a good swing on it,” said Tucker, who had just two hits in the three-game series at McKethan Stadium. “We had just given up three runs. We weren’t down but everyone was kind of questioning whether or not we could come back even though we’ve done it plenty of times this year.
“It completely changed the momentum and we carried it on to the next inning.” Florida’s first two batters of the seventh inning — Bryson Smith and Nolan Fontana —drew walks from Mississippi State reliever Daryl Norris before Bulldogs coach John Cohen called in Reed, who had given up just four hits and one run in five-plus innings on Saturday. Reed was supposed to pitch around Tucker but left a pitch up in the strike zone.
“Those two walks by Norris are just a killer,” Cohen said. “We just let them create an inning there by walking people.”
Tucker’s home run was one of a season-high five the Gators (50-17) hit on Sunday. Daniel Pigott hit two — a two-run shot in the second inning and a solo shot in the eighth — and Mike Zunino and Vikash Ramjit hit solo homers in the first and second innings, respectively.
Mississippi State (38-25) scored six runs after falling behind 4-0. Nick Vickerson drove in four of those runs, three on a home run in the fourth inning and another on a single in the seventh that tied the game at 4-4. Bret Brownlee but the Bulldogs ahead 6-4 later that inning with a two-run single.
But the lead was short-lived thanks to Tucker’s blast, his 14th of the season.
Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan celebrated the victory by emphatically doing the Gator chomp at the crowd. He also shared some of the credit with Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, with whom he had talked to in the past few days seeking advice.
“For lack of better term, I had my head in my rear end (Saturday) night and I needed to pick myself up because the players were going to look to me,” O’Sullivan said. “We never meet as a team after a loss. Billy thought it’d be a good idea to get the team together just to see my face for 10 minutes. That’s what we did.”
It was cathartic, Zunino said.
“To lose like that at your home field, you sort of feel down,” he said. “You almost feel like you lost the series right there. Just to go over there and know the coaches think the same way you are (and) for everyone to be there and squash everything that you’re thinking and get refocused on the next day helped a lot.”
Almost as much as Tucker’s record-breaking homer.
Read more in Monday’s NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.