The Florida Gators’ brilliant 2017 season on the diamond, one filled with close games and clutch play, came down to another close game of clutch play on Tuesday night.
It ended with a 6-1 victory and the program’s first national championship.
But it started with Florida doing uncharacteristically good work against LSU’s Jared Poché. It started with three straight hits in the first inning that got a run across, then some two-out magic in the second to get another run home and stake the Gators to a 2-0 lead.
It started with Tyler Dyson — freshman Tyler Dyson, making his third start as a Gator Tyler Dyson, hadn’t pitched three full innings until just over two weeks ago Tyler Dyson — making the most important start of his life so far, and making it the best start of his life by scattering two hits and allowing just one run.
It turned in the top of the seventh, with what could have been the night’s pivotal half-inning in the worst way.
Dyson returned to the mound to begin it, but was greeted by an 0-2 single from Zach Watson that put one of LSU’s best athletes on base, and was lifted for Byrne as a result.
But the Gators’ all-time single-season saves leader and 2017 NCAA saves champion gave up a single to right to Jason Smith that a failed diving attempt by Ryan Larson turned into an RBI double, halving the Florida lead, and then gave up another single to Jake Slaughter to put the tying run on third and the go-ahead run on first with no outs.
Incredibly, LSU would not score again in that frame, thanks mostly to a runner interference call on Slaughter for a slide into Dalton Guthrie on a double-play ball that wiped out Smith’s run home. Smith wouldn’t make the 90-foot trek to the plate again, either, with Byrne inducing a lineout to a sliding Nick Horvath for the final out of the inning.
And LSU wouldn’t score in the eighth inning, despite an equally imposing threat. The Tigers got runners to the corners with no one out, and Byrne appeared to have no answers for the suddenly sweet-swinging LSU offense.
But he got a strikeout of Antoine Duplantis, and set the stage for a surprise cameo: Jackson Kowar, likely Florida’s Game 3 starter, came in as a fireman for the Gators. And he kept the blaze from igniting, getting a grounder to JJ Schwarz — who lasered a throw home to extinguish the most pressing threat — and another liner to Horvath to finish the half-inning.
Then it turned again, in the bottom of the eighth, as Florida poured on its own accelerant.
Jonathan India doubled down the left field line to start the eighth. Austin Langworthy worked a walk to put two men on. Mike Rivera sac bunted to move those runners over. Christian Hicks got intentionally walked to set up a double play.
And Horvath got hit to push across one run.
And Deacon Liput stroked a two-run double on his birthday.
And Schwarz swatted a sacrifice fly to make the lead 6-1.
That gave Kowar a seemingly unassailable lead in the ninth inning — one that he made good on, getting three outs in short order.
With the last one, a grounder to Liput deep behind second, Florida won its first national title in program history — and earned the right to the season’s ultimate dogpile.