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Florida 2, Wake Forest 1: Ryan Larson rescues Gators with 11th inning walk-off

Florida needed another unexpected contribution to take a 1-0 lead in the Gainesville Super Regional.

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Florida vs Virginia Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

After nearly seven hours, three pitchers, two fortuitous hit batsmen, and a strikeout with the bases loaded, the Florida Gators were in danger of letting yet another chance to put away Wake Forest in Game 1 of the Gainesville Super Regional late Saturday.

Then Ryan Larson stepped to the plate — and into Gators lore.

Larson’s walk-off RBI single gave Florida a 2-1 win over the Demon Deacons, saving the Gators from falling into an 0-1 hole in Super Regional play for the second consecutive season and from wasting an almost entirely brilliant night of pitching.

That night began in the afternoon, as Alex Faedo started Game 1 — with first pitch coming just after 3 p.m. — by fanning nine batters through four innings. Backed up by an RBI groundout in the third inning, Faedo had a 1-0 lead and appeared to be cruising.

Until the rains came, anyway.

Storms rolled through Gainesville just before 4:30 p.m., with lightning that halted play for what would eventually be a nearly four-hour weather delay. And when play resumed shortly after 8 p.m., it wasn’t Faedo on the mound for Florida, but projected Game 2 starter Brady Singer.

Kevin O’Sullivan’s gambit of throwing his No. 2 starter in an effort to preserve the Gators’ slim lead would pay off. Singer was utterly brilliant in his four innings of relief, setting down eight batters on strikes and getting out of an eighth inning inaugurated with a leadoff stand-up double without giving up the Gators’ 1-0 lead.

But O’Sullivan opted to bring in closer Michael Byrne — Florida’s all-time leader for saves in a season — for the ninth inning and a three-out save, and that move to pull a rolling Singer would immediately backfire. Wake’s Ben Brazeale led off the bottom of the ninth by lifting a Byrne pitch just over the fence and inside the pole in left field to tie the game, and dash what could have been one of the greater combined pitching performances in a nine-inning affair in Florida history.

Instead, the Gators would have to keep playing into extra innings — and Byrne would just have to make that performance one of the best in a game in Florida history. He struck out six in his three innings of relief, giving Florida its most strikeouts in a postseason game in program history, and escaped jams in the 10th and 11th innings by buckling down after allowing leadoff hits.

That set the stage for an 11th inning that fomented opportunity for Florida despite the Gators’ initial inability to get a hit. Florida loaded the bases in the bottom of the frame on a walk and two hit by pitches, putting the game-winning run 90 feet from glory with one out.

But pinch-hitter Mark Kolosovary struck out to record the inning’s second out, leaving the fate of the game in the hands of Larson — who had not seen the field since taking a baseball to the face on a diving attempt in the first inning of Florida’s SEC Tournament semifinal loss to Arkansas two weeks ago, and who was being tasked with winning a game by recording the Gators’ first hit since the fifth inning.

Yet with the game — and perhaps Florida’s season, for all intents and purposes — on the line, Larson stroked a single through the infield, scoring Jonathan India and spurring a dogpile that made it all the way to center field at McKethan Stadium.

Now, Florida is one win from a return to the College World Series, and can hope for a strong start from Jackson Kowar on Sunday that might help secure that victory.

It’s a much better situation than sitting in an 0-1 hole against one of the nation’s most potent offenses, with the Gators wringing their hands to figure out how they get two wins with Faedo and Singer presumably out of action until at least Monday’s if-necessary Game 3. (Of course, Florida did come back from a Game 1 loss to defeat Florida State in the 2016 Gainesville Super Regional.)

And because of a senior who has become a star by making his last year by far his best year at the dish, Florida’s often-anemic offense did enough to make its iron-willed, flame-throwing pitching stand up on a night when that pitching has never been greater.

Game 2 of the Gainesville Super Regional is set to begin at 3 p.m. on Sunday. In it, Florida will be one win from Omaha.

Go get it, Gators.