The Florida Gators are heading back to Omaha for the 2018 College World Series — this time, for the first time, as defending champions.
It took a walk-off homer in one of the greatest games in Florida baseball history for that.
Sophomore left fielder Austin Langworthy, robbed of extra-base hits twice by fantastic Auburn catches earlier in the night, came up in the bottom of the 11th on Monday night with a chance to end the game and send Florida to Omaha with one big swing.
He did it — with an assist from Auburn’s Steven Williams.
Obviously the most fitting way to send the No. 1 seed into the final #CWS spot!— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 12, 2018
For the 1️⃣2️⃣th time in program history, @GatorsBB is headed to the College World Series! pic.twitter.com/Lnt38ZojTE
Williams’ leaping stab at only the second ball with a real chance to exit the field of play sent that ball over the fence in right — right in front of Florida’s decals celebrating the program’s College World Series appearances — to break a tie and make the win creating Gators’ fourth consecutive trip to Omaha as memorable as any in program history.
It already had been one of the most dramatic games ever played at McKethan Stadium, long before the 11th.
Florida opened the scoring with a Jonathan India homer in the first inning, but Auburn fought back for its first run off freshman starter Jack Leftwich shortly after, scratching it together in the third via Will Holland’s two-out single up the middle on an 0-2 count, a Holland stolen base, and an RBI knock by Williams.
Florida got its second run in the next half-inning on one of the more aggressive plays of Kevin O’Sullivan’s managerial career, as Blake Reese bolted home on a perfectly called fake-out double steal in the fourth.
But, just like in Sunday’s Game 2 of the Gainesville Regional, neither team would open up a lead of more than a run.
And so when Auburn tied the game in the seventh on a sacrifice fly that Wil Dalton nearly turned into a 9-2 double play — but for a sensational slide by Luke Jarvis, he would’ve — it felt like this game was destined for either extra innings or one seismic moment.
In those late innings, Tigers reliever Davis Daniel and Gators closer Michael Byrne traded leather-tough innings on the mound, with Daniel getting backed up by phenomenal defense that twice included sliding catches on well-hit balls by Langworthy and Byrne outfoxing Auburn’s hitters with his full repertoire of B+ filth. Daniel yielded a single hit in 5.1 innings of work, striking out six and walking four, while Byrne gave up one hit in four innings, fanning five and walking just one.
But Daniel would be lifted in the 10th inning, with Auburn bringing on Cody Greenhill — who also yielded a game-tying homer to Langworthy on Sunday — to extinguish a two-runner jam by getting Dalton to send a jam shot to shortstop.
And when Byrne got the Gators to the bottom of the 11th by inducing a 1-2-3 inning in the top of the frame, the stage was set for Langworthy.
In his moment in the spotlight, Langworthy sent a baseball out to right, pursued by a Tiger.
And now the Gators get to exit Gainesville stage right, headed to Omaha with a title to reclaim.