On March 2, 2014, Florida's struggling baseball team lost to Illinois by a 5-1 count, and fell to 6-6 for the season. The Gators were perilously close to letting what was supposed to be a bounce-back season from 2013 — a ruinous year that ended with the Gators at 29-30, and swept out of the NCAA Tournament by Austin Peay and Valparaiso — turn into a repeat of it.
On May 15, 2014, Florida beat Tennessee, 6-5, in extra innings, and moved to 36-18 on the year. The victory clinched the SEC East title and at least a share of the overall SEC championship.
It's funny how time can heal all wounds.
Florida nearly spit the bit in Knoxville on Thursday night, letting a 4-1 lead slip thanks to a three-run homer allowed by Eric Hanhold in relief of Logan Shore and allowing Tennessee to score a go-ahead run in the eighth inning. These were the mistakes of a young team: Hanhold left a pitch to No. 9 hitter Tyler Smart up, and Smart cranked it over the wall; Harrison Bader slipped as he tried to make what would've been an inning-ending catch on the flare single that put the Vols up.
But the Gators came through with their backs against the wall, as they have all season. After Casey Turgeon singled and advanced on a fielder's choice in the top of the ninth, Bader came to the plate with one out left, and smacked a double off the wall in right, scoring Turgeon and tying the game at 5-5.
And then Bobby Poyner worked a quick 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth to get to extras. And then Ryan Harris faced just four batters in the bottom of the 10th. And then Bader singled in the top of the 11th, and manufactured his own run: He stole second, then took third on a throwing error and raced home via a fielding error.
Florida couldn't add another run after Bader's adventure, despite Braden Mattson reaching first on a dropped third strike, but Kirby Snead slammed the door shut in the bottom of the 11th, allowing just a two-out single, and the Gators had an SEC title to celebrate with a dogpile.
That title isn't the Gators' alone yet, and Mississippi can still steal a share of the title by winning out against Texas A&M if Florida falls to Tennesseee on both Friday and Saturday. But even a share of the SEC wasn't expected prior to this season, not with just three seniors on Florida's roster, and it didn't seem possible after that 6-6 start, which featured losses to Maryland, Miami, Florida Gulf Coast, and Illinois.
But all of those teams turned out to be decent — all four are within the RPI top 75 as of Friday, and Miami and Maryland are No. 10 and No. 31, respectively — and Florida learned it could win close games despite a lack of offense thanks to its phenomenal pitching. Bader's return from a season-beginning suspension for a drunken scooter crash lifted Florida's offense just enough to get the Gators over some humps in SEC play, and they clicked off a school-record 12 straight SEC wins in series that included trips to South Carolina and Alabama.
The best part of Florida's season, though, is that there's more of it to go.