The original title of this article was Florida Baseball Beats Vanderbilt 4-3, Advances To SEC Tournament Final. You have my solemn promise that I will never pre-write a headline for a Gators game recap again, because the astonishing top of the ninth in Florida's 8-6 loss to Vanderbilt happened moments after that.
Here is what happened in the top of the ninth inning, in order:
- Connor Castellano, pinch-hitting for Jack Lupo, doubled to right off Austin Maddox, in to close out a game that Florida led 4-3.
- Andrew Harris, pinch-hitting, sacrifice bunted Castellano to third.
- Maddox hit Tony Kemp on the foot with a pitch, putting runners on first and third with one out.
- Mike Yastrzemski (yes, relation) sac bunted up the first base line, scoring Castellano ... and made it safely to first, as his bunt was perfect. Vandy ties the game, 4-4.
- Kemp and Yastrzemski attempt a double steal, but Mike Zunino's throw to second appears to be in time and Yastrzemski is called out. Replay shows that he just beat the tag.
- Anthony Gomez slaps a seeing-eye single to the gap between short and third that Nolan Fontana can't quite get to, giving Vanderbilt a 5-4 lead.
- Gomez steals second, opening up first for Conrad Gregor to be intentionally walked.
- Gomez and Gregor execute a double steal, putting runners on second and third. Spencer Navin is intentionally walked to load the bases and set up a force at every base.
This:Vanderbilt executes a friggin' triple steal, with Gomez, Gregor, and Navin all moving up a base safely, to give the Commodores a 6-4 lead.
- Will Cooper, a freshman who has never had more than a hit in any collegiate game, raps a two-run single to right to put Vanderbilt up, 8-4.
- Connor Harrell singles to left, because Justin Shafer slips on his approach of Harrell's bloop, but Shafer throws out Cooper at third, mercifully ending the inning.
Vanderbilt's six stolen bases in the inning were more than any other team had ever had in an SEC Tournament game.
If that's not the weirdest half-inning in the history of Florida baseball, it's got to be close. And yet two of the worst things about it were contextual: It could have been avoided, if only a different decision were made in the bottom of the eighth, and it was followed almost immediately by a frantic rally from Florida that fell just short.
Florida worked hard to get the 4-3 lead it enjoyed entering the ninth — Karsten Whitson coughed up five hits and three runs in 2.1 innings of work in yet another poor start, but Greg Larson worked four scoreless innings, and Steven Rodriguez followed him with 1.2 scoreless innings — and got timely hitting from the players who will need to provide it for the Gators to go far in June.
Brian Johnson had an RBI single in the first inning to cut Vandy's 2-0 lead in half, and a two-run double in the third that tied the game, just the showiest hits on his fantastic 4-for-5 day that followed his first career complete game on Friday. Preston Tucker scored on both of those hits, despite going just 1-for-5. Fontana's RBI single to score Vickash Ramjit in the fourth gave the Gators their first lead. And Mike Zunino went 2-for-5 and scored two runs.
But the Gators loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth with one out and Ramjit up, and bunt-happy coach Kevin O'Sullivan opted against laying one down and trying to get Daniel Pigott home — a move that could have made it 5-3 entering the ninth, and forcing Vandy to play for two runs instead of one. Instead, Ramjit swung away, dribbling a grounder to second that became an inning-ending double play.
If that was the "woulda, coulda, shoulda" moment of the day, Florida's bottom of the ninth was the "almost." The Gators recorded two outs within their first three batters, with Josh Tobias fanning and Tucker grounding into a fielder's choice, but they then embarked on a four-hit rally that cut Vandy's lead to 8-6 and put Shafer at the plate with the winning run on first. But all Shafer could do was lift a fly to right that ended the game, and Florida's bid for back-to-back SEC Tournament titles.
The 8-6 loss both brought up more than a few of the issues that continue to plague Florida, a likely high national seed in the upcoming 2012 NCAA Tournament, and showed why the Gators have enough talent to win their first national championship. We'll talk about both this week, but I'm going to have to catch my breath after this game first.