By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – All Nick Vickerson wanted was one swing. One chance to make something big happen.
John Cohen, Vickerson’s coach and a huge proponent of small ball, allowed it. So third base coach Nick Mingione took off the bunt sign.
Vickerson swung. And Mississippi State’s season still has life.
The senior second baseman’s two-run home run in the ninth inning lifted the Bulldogs (38-24) to a 4-3 win over Florida (49-17) on Saturday, tying the best-of-three Gainesville Super Regional at a game apiece. Game 3 is today at noon on ESPN, with the winner advancing to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
It was Vickerson’s first walk-off homer since he was a 16-year-old playing American Legion ball in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He said he wasn’t swinging for the fence, and he wasn’t sure at first that it was a home run.
“I heard it hit the fence, that back fence, and then I just saw everybody come onto the field,” he said. “So that’s when I knew.”
Cohen had initially put the bunt sign on, but then reliever Nick Maronde was lifted in favor of Steven Rodriguez – both are left-handers, and Vickerson is a righty.
Cohen conferred with Mingione during the pitching change.
“How do we feel about giving him a strike versus moving (the baserunner) right here?” Cohen asked his assistant. Mingione asked Vickerson, who admitted to being upset when first seeing the bunt sign.
Vickerson said, “Just give me a strike.”
He had faced Rodriguez twice before this season, striking out both times. Vickerson wasn’t expecting a fastball, but it came in waist-high, and he drilled it over the left field wall for his eighth homer of the season, which ties him with Jonathan Ogden for the team lead.
Vickerson has 18 extra-base hits in his last 22 games.
“When I saw they were going to give him one opportunity, I just thought, ‘Come on Nick, do your thing and let’s get out of here with the next swing,’” said senior third baseman Jarrod Parks, who opened the ninth with a single. “I knew he’d try to end it right there.”
It was the first long ball for State in this NCAA tournament.
Whitson tough to crack
The rally overshadowed a stellar performance by Florida freshman Karsten Whitson, who was charged with two runs on four hits in 61/3 innings.
MSU only had one hit off him through six innings, but the Bulldogs finally got to him in the seventh with three consecutive singles, including Cody Freeman’s RBI hit to end Whitson’s day.
“We didn’t give them anything, they just took advantage of their opportunities,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “You’ve got to tip your cap.”
Reliever Tommy Toledo surrendered a run-scoring to the first batter he faced, Brent Brownlee, to make it 2-2 and leave Whitson out of the decision.
State still had two men on with one out, but Ogden grounded into a double play to end the threat.
Florida pulled back ahead in the eighth on Tyler Thompson’s two-out RBI triple, which barely eluded the glove of diving center fielder C.T. Bradford. A few other fly balls had fallen just out of reach during this game, and Cohen started to wonder if it just wasn’t meant to be.
“But our kids just would not give in, they wouldn’t give up,” he said. “They kept attacking the game, and sometimes it comes down to one swing.”
The ninth began with Maronde on the mound, facing Parks, who to that point was 0 of 3 with two strikeouts looking. Parks rolled a 1-1 pitch past the shortstop for a leadoff single, and that’s when O’Sullivan decided to go with Rodriguez (3-2), who was the winning pitcher against MSU in the first round of the SEC Tournament.
Florida has been without its regular closer, Austin Maddox, who injured his foot last weekend.
“He’s got swing-and-miss stuff,” O’Sullivan said of Rodriguez. “He’s had a great year for us. You flip a coin, it’s either him or Maronde.”
The win went to Caleb Reed (1-1), who tossed 51/3 innings in relief of starter Nick Routt. Reed, a junior, gave up one run on four hits and earned his first career victory against an SEC foe.
Routt was charged with two runs on seven hits in 32/3 innings.
The Bulldogs and Gators now find their roles reversed. MSU vowed to get amnesia following the 11-1 thrashing it endured Friday, and now Florida must put aside Saturday’s heartache and focus on reaching its seventh College World Series.
State is vying for its ninth berth in Omaha.
“Definitely my heart sank a little bit,” Florida’s Josh Adams said of Vickerson’s heroics. “But then I remembered I get to come out (today) and play.”