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Florida outlasts USF to reach Gainesville Regional final

In a game that stretched from twilight to midnight, Florida pulled through when it had to.

Matt Stamey / Florida Gators

Minutes from midnight on Saturday, the Florida Gators finally came through against USF — and guaranteed themselves the easiest road out of the Gainesville Regional, and at least most of Sunday off.

Florida plated four runs in the top of the 12th inning, then got a fifth shutout inning from closer extraordinaire Michael Byrne to finish a 5-1 win over the Bulls that sent the Gators to the Gainesville Regional final.

Much of the night prior to that 12th inning had been frustrating for Florida at the plate. USF’s first three pitchers had scattered five hits over their first eight innings of work, and Andrew Perez had not allowed a hit in his three innings prior to the 11th, preserving the 1-1 tie that required extra innings to break.

But Florida’s Christian Hicks opened the 12th with a single, and after a failed bunt attempt by Deacon Liput ended in a strikeout, USF gave the Gators the lead on a pair of errors that scored pinch-runner Blake Reese all the way from first.

And after a single and two walks loaded the bases, Florida got an RBI groundout from JJ Schwarz to double its lead, then a two-run single from Nelson Maldonado that foreclosed all but the mightiest comeback attempt.

Then Byrne, who was throwing his fifth inning of the night and entering his eighth of the Gainesville Regional, shut the door on USF, retiring three batters after a leadoff single and getting a swinging strikeout to earn his third win of the season.

The Gators’ late heroics staved off a Bulls outfit that proved to be wily and resilient all night long.

Florida starter Alex Faedo allowed just one run in seven innings, striking out 10 batters and working on both sides of a short rain delay that helped contribute to the game’s nearly five-hour runtime. But he worked just three 1-2-3 innings on the evening, and had to strike out the side in the fifth inning to end a USF threat that still managed to erase the 1-0 lead Florida had taken in the fourth inning on a Mike Rivera single.

And while Byrne extended a string of appearances without allowing more than three hits that dates to early March to 21 outings, the Bulls had two runners on with one out in both the eighth and 10th innings, forcing a seemingly exhausted Byrne to dig deep to get out of both jams.

Florida will now have most of Sunday off before a scheduled 7 p.m. meeting with the victor of the day’s first game, an elimination game between USF and Bethune-Cookman. The Gators need just one win over either the Bulls or Wildcats to advance to the Super Regional round, while both of their prospective foes would now need to win three straight games to get out of Gainesville with their seasons still alive.

And given how the Gators’ season-long we’re-not-dead-yet act got another chapter on Saturday, I wouldn’t bet on the Bulls or Wildcats being anything but walking dead.