Florida baseball took the field at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha last night with a chance to get its first-ever win in the College World Series Championship Series, to take a 1-0 lead over the defending national champion South Carolina Gamecocks, to get within one win of the first baseball national championship in school history. And, well, that didn't go as we hoped: Florida lost to South Carolina, 2-1, in 11 innings, and the game itself was one of the more heartbreaking by any Gators team in recent memory.
The postmortem is below the jump.
Florida started the game in fine fashion. Starter Hudson Randall, great all season for the Gators, retired 23 of the first 27 batters he faced, striking out six. Tyler Thompson scored Florida's only run in the third inning with some successful small ball: He walked to lead off the inning, advanced to second on an inadvertent fielder's choice, moved to third on a wild pitch, and scored on Cody Dent's sacrifice fly.
The Gators' 1-0 lead would only last until the eighth inning, though. Randall walked leadoff batter Peter Mooney, then traded two outs for two bases. With a runner on third and a one-run lead, Kevin O'Sullivan did the Grady Little Memorial Walk and decided to leave Pedr ... sorry, Randall in; he subsequently gave up just his third hit of the night, a grounder up the middle by Scott Wingo, and the game was tied.
O'Sullivan's decision to stick with Randall was one I agreed with at the time, but is harder to defend in hindsight. Randall had been dealing for most of the night, and was only just over 75 pitches for the game, but it was his fourth time through the lineup, and conventional sabermetric wisdom holds that even an average reliever is usually better than a starter being left in to face a batting order for the fourth time. And, well, while I don't believe in clutch, Wingo had certainly demonstrated enough aptitude to be very worrisome at the plate.
Florida wouldn't score again, but not for lack of base runners. The Gators loaded the bases in the ninth, but two grounders to Wingo — the second starting a 4-2-3 double play — scuttled a chance to win in nine innings, and Dent's poor jump on an attempt to score on a Mike Zunino single from second got him tagged out at home, ending Florida's 10th-inning threat.
Then the Gamecocks did what they do: Score late to win. Christian Walker, playing with a hamate bone fracture, singled with one out in the 11th; he then, on one play, stole second on an overthrow by Zunino and came home on a throwing error from Bryson Smith. In any other sport, that's immediately called a dagger, and Florida's dugout went crestfallen in short order.
The Gators had a chance in the 11th: A Brian Johnson single gave Florida a base runner, and a sacrifice bunt put Paul Wilson, pinch-running for Johnson, on second. But then Thompson and Dent failed to do anything against Gamecocks close Matt Price, striking and grounding out, respectively, and South Carolina finished its stirring 2-1 comeback win.
The flipside of a stirring win is, of course, a dispiriting loss, and the Gators who played and watched last night can't be pleased with either the outcome of the game or how it was reached. Randall pitched a gem, but was probably left in one batter too long; Florida got runners on, but failed to get balls out of the infield late after spraying fly outs all game; the Gators' NCAA Tournament standby, the sacrifice bunt, was taken away from them by South Carolina's smart decision to load the bases late; Zunino's first important hit of the College World Series was for naught as a bad jump and an ill-advised signal to head for home ruined his chances of having a game-winning RBI.
Fortunately for the Gators, the Championship Series is a best-of-three affair, and all they need to do to win their first NCAA championship now is beat a team that has won its last 14 NCAA Tournament games (uh-oh) and will be throwing its ace, Michael Roth (oh, dear), behind talented freshman Karsten Whitson (gulp). Oh, and then the Gators have to win another game.
On the other hand, it would be just like the exasperating Diamond Gators to win after losing like this, wouldn't it?