By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – For a few tantalizing moments, the road to Omaha opened up and invited Mississippi State to make the unlikely journey.
Florida wrecked those dreams with one blow by Preston Tucker, and the Gators won Game 3 of the Gainesville Super Regional, 8-6, at McKethan Stadium on Sunday. Florida will be making its seventh trip to the College World Series, and second in a row.
The Bulldogs (38-25) were leading Florida 6-4 after scoring three times in the top of the seventh, and visions of Rosenblatt Stadium and a ninth CWS berth danced in their heads.
“You can’t help but think that way a little bit,” senior Nick Vickerson said. “Two runs (ahead), late in the ballgame, we’ve still got some good guys in the pen – I thought we really had a chance.”
Florida (50-17), the No. 2 national seed, still had plenty of pop left, though. After reliever Daryl Norris walked the first two batters of the seventh, MSU coach John Cohen inserted junior closer Caleb Reed, who had thrown 82 pitches and earned the win just the day before.
Mike Zunino, the SEC player of the year, laid down a bunt to move the runners over, and then Tucker stepped in. Reed (1-2) was trying to pitch around him with a base open, but Tucker got hold of a low changeup and sent it rocketing over the center field wall for a 7-6 Florida lead.
It was the fourth of five home runs for the Gators, who scored all of their runs via the long ball.
“Caleb was on fumes at that time,” Cohen said. “We felt we might get him to chase a changeup down in the zone. We brought Caleb in right then because that’s where the game was.”
Florida’s rally one-upped MSU’s comeback from an early 4-0 deficit. Vickerson, whose walk-off homer Saturday necessitated the decisive third game, hit a three-run bomb in the fourth to bring the Bulldogs within 4-3.
“You put everything you’ve got into it, and to have that kind of outcome, like I said, it’s heart-breaking,” said junior Brent Brownlee, whose two-run, two-out single in the seventh gave State a 6-4 edge.
Bulldogs rally again
MSU, which lost Game 1 by an 11-1 score and had to claw back twice on Saturday, out-hit Florida 11-10 and got off the canvas after back-to-back homers by Daniel Pigott and Vickash Ramjit gave UF a 4-0 lead in the second inning.
The Gators have outscored opponents 39-1 over the first three innings this postseason.
MSU starter Luis Pollorena exited with no outs in the third inning, and junior Devin Jones threw three shutout innings to keep the Bulldogs within striking distance.
“I was proud of our guys for coming and fighting back, getting that lead again,” Vickerson said. “In my head I was like, if they win this game, they’re going to earn it. That’s what they did.”
The five homers were the most in a game this season for Florida, and Pigott had two of them, including a solo shot in the eighth. He had three of UF’s nine homers on the weekend.
Florida’s Alex Panteliodis, making his school-record sixth NCAA postseason start, gave up three runs in 41⁄3 innings. The win went to Tommy Toledo (6-3), who worked 21⁄3 innings and gave up Brownlee’s two-run hit.
The Gators went 5-2 against the Bulldogs this year, including a 7-5 comeback win in the SEC Tournament. Fourth-year coach Kevin O’Sullivan knew exactly what his team was in for.
“I think it was one of the best games that I have been involved with,” O’Sullivan said.
Cohen and the Bulldogs, who were picked in the preseason to finish last in the SEC Western Division for a fourth consecutive year, understand how far they’ve come. That makes this loss no easier to swallow.
Cohen wanted that CWS berth badly. It’s what he came to Starkville to do, was get this program back where he feels it belongs.
“I don’t want to say it’s a moral victory; there are none,” Cohen said. “We’ve got to get to Omaha and do whatever it takes.”