After seven innings in Hoover on Friday, Florida looked lost at the plate against Mississippi State starter Cole Gordon, and was staring at a 3-0 deficit and a possible date with red-hot Arkansas in the losers’ bracket of the SEC Tournament.
After the eighth, Florida was up — by eight runs. After the ninth, the Gators had earned passage to the SEC Tournament semifinals for the fourth straight year.
An SEC Tournament-record 11-run onslaught in the top of the eighth — in which Florida finally chased Gordon, then piled on Bulldogs relievers with the help of only one extra-base hit — got the Gators the lead for good, and a final insurance run in the ninth brought the contest to its final score of 12-3.
The top-seeded Gators were unable to solve Gordon for much of the day, and he exited with only Christian Hicks on base in the top of the eighth. But patience and persistence paid off for Florida against five Mississippi State relievers in the frame, as the Gators drew six walks and rapped five singles, never scoring more than two runs on any swing until a final bases-clearing double by Deacon Liput — who had opened the scoring with a single, two outs and eight at-bats ago.
Jonathan India and Mike Rivera each drew RBI walks in the eighth, with India’s tying the game. JJ Schwarz stayed away from a wild pitch that scored another run. And Austin Langworthy, a freshman who had not mustered a hit in Hoover, had maybe the best piece of hitting of the frame, staying back on a breaking ball and looping it to left to score two runs and take the lead.
But singling out any single Gator for their contributions in that inning, when almost all of them — save perhaps cleanup hitter Nelson Maldonado, who swung wildly at three straight balls with the bases loaded and one out, then got picked up by the bottom of Florida’s order — did something significant and good at the plate, is missing the point.
Mississippi State’s was a death by a thousand cuts — and refusals to take cuts — and a showcase for how Florida can succeed even when it is not raking. (24 home runs have been hit in Hoover; Florida has none of them.)
The Gators will be able to make an SEC Tournament final on Saturday, and will have their typical Saturday starter going in that game, after Kevin O’Sullivan used Jackson Kowar in this game to free up fellow sophomore Brady Singer for a potential elimination game on Friday night.
But even winning the SEC Tournament will not do much to change Florida’s NCAA Tournament destiny: The Gators are thought of as a lock to earn a national seed and be slated to keep their cleats in Gainesville for Regional and Super Regional play. A win over LSU or Kentucky in a Sunday final — the Gators will see either Arkansas or Mississippi State on Saturday — could perhaps move Florida from the No. 4 or No. 5 slot to the No. 3 or No. 4 slot, but that is a marginal benefit at best.
More importantly for Florida, this SEC Tournament has forced the Gators to win in two different ways. First, they responded after building and then losing a lead on Wednesday against Auburn, and then they rescued themselves by rallying on this Friday — after losing both Ryan Larson and Nick Horvath to baseballs to the face, and seeing Kowar yield three runs despite being part of a pitching performance that consigned SEC Player of the Year Brent Rooker to an 0-for-5 day.
It’s little surprise that these Gators, who have played literal dozens of one-run games this season, were able to take those two roads to victory. They have walked so many different ones already this season.
But as Florida shows its resilience and versatility, and stacks up more and more of these wins, it gets easier to believe they may well do so for weeks to come.