GAINESVILLE | The lead to tomorrow’s game story is, of course, the walk-off home run by Nick Vickerson, which gave MSU a 4-3 win over No. 2 national seed Florida in the best-of-three super regional. But my story can go into only so much detail because of space concerns, and I wanted to delve a little deeper into that game-winning blow.
Vickerson was 1 of 3 at the plate entering the ninth. He’d struck out his first two times up, but he came through with a one-out single in the seventh inning to start a two-run rally that tied the game. Vickerson said afterwards that getting on the board made it feel like a different game, made the Bulldogs feel like they had a real chance to pull this out.
Florida pulled back ahead in the eighth with a run, but the Bulldogs had the middle of the order due up in the bottom of the ninth. First up was Jarrod Parks, who struck out twice (looking) and flew out his first three times up. Against reliever Nick Maronde, Parks rolled a ground ball just past shortstop Nolan Fontana for a single.
With rally caps on in the dugout and the sizable MSU contingent cheering wildly, Florida went to the bullpen for Steven Rodriguez, who entering the game had an ERA of 1.44. He earned the win against MSU in the first round of the SEC Tournament, throwing 1 2/3 shutout innings.
Like Maronde, Rodriguez is a lefty. Vickerson hits right-handed. But UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan didn’t second-guess himself.
“He’s got swing-and-miss stuff. He’s had a great year for us. You flip a coin, it’s either him or Maronde.”
It certainly made things tougher for O’Sullivan that regular closer Austin Maddox (2-0, 0.74 ERA, five saves, zero homers allowed) wasn’t available. He’s been out since hurting his foot in the regional round.
MSU coach John Cohen put on the bunt sign for Vickerson before Maronde was pulled. Cohen, of course, is big on small ball, and that means bunting. MSU had already had two sac bunts in this game, plus a bunt single by Jonathan Ogden.
“To be honest, I was a little upset about it, but I was going to bunt,” said Vickerson, who had homered off Maronde during the SEC Tournament (and that was the last homer MSU had hit before today).
In came Rodriguez, against whom Vickerson had struck out looking in his previous two at-bats this season. Cohen recounts what happened next.
“Vick really wanted to swing, and we were talking about bunting in that last AB, (third base coach) Nick Mingione came up and said, ‘How do we feel about giving him a strike versus moving (Parks) right here?’ And he asked Nick what he wanted to do, he said, ‘Just give me a strike.’ Boy, he made the most of that.”
Cohen said he likes to let his players make those kinds of decisions, and Vickerson being a senior, the coach gave him some leeway there.
“Knowing that Nick hadn’t taken great swings against the lefty that came in, he had a look in his eye of, I definitely want to swing it here,” Cohen said.
Vickerson was expecting a cutter from Rodriguez on the first pitch – it had worked well against Vickerson before – and he said if it hadn’t been a good pitch to hit, he’d have laid off and laid down the bunt next pitch. But Rodriguez threw a belt-high fastball.
“I was a little surprised, especially with a runner on,” Vickerson said. “I had been swinging at balls all day. I was surprised, but I was glad I got it.”
Vickerson turned on it in a hurry, sending it sailing into the small set of bleachers in left field. He wasn’t sure initially whether it was gone, and neither was Parks.
“I ran and stopped to see if the outfielder had a play on the ball,” Parks said. “I heard Mingione screaming ‘go ball’ and started running.”
Once Vickerson crossed home plate, he was mobbed by teammates. It was the first walk-off homer of the season for State, and the first of Vickerson’s college career. It was also the first walk-off homer given up by Florida since April 10, 2009 (Auburn’s Justin Hargett).
“Honestly, if hasn’t even hit me yet,” Vickerson said. “I guess I’ll know when I get all the text messages and stuff later from friends and talk to my dad and all. I’m just glad we’re getting to play another game and we’re not out of it yet.”
Want more from Vickerson? I’ve got video. Enjoy.