The Florida Gators led the Texas Tech Red Raiders 5-0 at one point in Thursday night’s elimination game at the College World Series. They could have, in theory, gone down the stretch with that lead — and fans’ stomach linings — fully intact.
That didn’t happen.
But Florida did survive.
Freshman Jack Leftwich pitched brilliantly for the first two thirds of the night, and Florida’s offense came alive, especially late, in a hard-fought 9-6 win that earns the Gators at least 24 more hours in Omaha.
Leftwich, handed the ball after good and great starts by juniors Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar earlier in the week, did not have his finest stuff, especially early, and had to escape a bases-loaded situation in the second inning. But escape he did, and Leftwich’s only subsequent meaningful trouble between then and the very end of his outing came in the bottom of the fourth inning, when Austin Langworthy made a fantastic diving catch and doubled a runner off second base to spoil a two-on, one-out threat for Texas Tech. the seventh inning, when his 6.1-inning start came to an end.
By then, Florida had already started building its 5-0 lead — and without a hit.
Jonathan India manufactured a run in the top of the fourth inning without the benefit of a knock by walking, taking bases on a wild pitch and a steal and coming home on another wild pitch. By the end of the inning, though, Florida still hadn’t put a 1 under the H on the scoreboard.
So when Florida finally solved Tech starter Caleb Kilian — who allowed no hits through those four innings — in the top of the fifth, getting runs on a Deacon Liput RBI double and a Nelson Maldonado RBI groundout, it felt like a breakthrough.
And when the Gators struck again in the top of the sixth on a towering two-run homer from JJ Schwarz — the 50th homer of his career and the first to come in Omaha, and Florida’s 100th home run on the year — it felt like Florida had all but secured passage to Friday.
The bottom of the seventh, though, was a trip between Scylla and Charybdis.
Leftwich gave up a leadoff double, got a strikeout, and then gave up a single to put runners on the corners with one out that led to Kevin O’Sullivan calling to the bullpen. But Andrew Baker, summoned for a relief effort for the first time in weeks, could not get an out over the next two batters — and Tommy Mace couldn’t get one over the two after that, with the walk, two singles, and an error allowed over those plate appearances scoring three runs.
A third freshman reliever — and the fourth freshman pitcher of the inning — would come on in the form of Jordan Butler, excellent against Texas on Tuesday. And while he would, in fact, end the inning, he did so with a fastball high and inside on a full count to get a swinging strikeout and a dead-red fastball lanced directly to Wil Dalton in right.
And though Florida would answer back in the top of the eighth, scoring three runs to extend the lead to 8-3 and getting a triple to dead center from Brady Smith, the Red Raiders also weren’t done being the source of saurian dyspepsia. They would load the bases and plate a run against freshman Hunter McMullen in the bottom of the eighth, and pull back two more runs with a single to left off newly-entered closer Michael Byrne.
Byrne, though, would get a flyout to finish the eighth inning. And he got a vital insurance run on an error by Texas Tech in the top of the ninth, allowing him to work aggressively and efficiently in a perfect nine-pitch bottom of the ninth to close out the game and eliminate the Red Raiders.
The Gators now move on to a must-win showdown with Arkansas on Friday night — one in which Singer may well make a go of it on four days’ rest — needing to beat the powerful Razorbacks twice to get to the championship series of the College World Series, and assuredly needing to beat the unbeaten Blaine Knight along the way.
But Florida has also now staved off elimination four times in this NCAA Tournament.
What’s two more times dodging the guillotine, at this point?