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Arkansas 5, Florida 2: Finally, Gators ousted from College World Series

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The Gators didn’t have enough oxygen to make it to the mountaintop.

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

Finally, Brady Singer looked mortal.

Finally, Florida’s defensive disasters proved more than merely painful.

Finally, Florida’s offense had no answers for a talented thrower.

Finally, the Florida Gators met a team that they could not solve in Omaha.

And so, finally, their championship defense is done.

Friday night’s 5-2 loss to Arkansas eliminated Florida at the College World Series, and it did so with the Gators struggling to climb up a steep slope. The Razorbacks appeared every bit the rested, ready team that the 2-0 team that prevailed from the winners’ bracket should be — and the Gators were the ragged, rallying team that an outfit playing a third game in four days could be.

Nowhere was that difference more apparent than on the mound.

Florida’s Brady Singer, making his last start in a Gators uniform, was giving maximum effort and getting less than maximum results, possessing only a diminished version of his usual repertoire — and Arkansas capitalized on at the top of its order time and again. The Hogs took a 4-0 lead by getting leadoff man Casey Martin home in the first, third, and fifth innings against Singer, and added another run on a Dominic Fletcher homer cranked to right before Florida’s starter exited after going five full and recording just two strikeouts.

Meanwhile, talented but erratic Arkansas sophomore Isaiah Campbell overwhelmed the Gators much like they overwhelmed him in a March start in Gainesville, recording his first 14 outs without allowing a batter to reach and striking out eight. Campbell’s stuff was electric, even if he was helped by a generous strike zone, and Florida only really touched it in the fifth inning — and only did so to the tune of two singles, needing a hit by pitch and a wild pitch to help score the Gators’ only runs of the night.

Freshman Brady Smith, a bright spot for the Gators in Omaha, drove in the first of those runs on a single to center; Blake Reese, hit by a pitch, scored the second on the wild pitch.

And after Singer’s departure, freshman Tommy Mace handled his business on the mound, giving up just one unearned run in the sixth after an error by Reese on what could’ve been an inning-ending double play thanks to two strikeouts and allowing just two hits over his final three innings. Mace recorded all but one of those last nine outs by groundout, strikeout, or shallow fly, and doubled Singer’s strikeout total on the evening, with four of his own.

But Florida could not break through against Arkansas in the later innings, squandering chances with a runner on second in both the sixth and seventh inning and failing to do anything after a leadoff single in the eighth. The Gators’ inability to hit with runners on went from the stuff of memes to a waking nightmare over the course of this postseason, so it was no surprise that it was part of the ultimate cause of death for this team, but it was exacerbated on this night by the inability to get runners on against Campbell, which put Florida in a hole it could not escape.

For Florida, a fourth straight trip to the College World Series is now over, as are the careers of several great Gators. Seniors JJ Schwarz and Nick Horvath and drafted juniors like Singer, Jonathan India, and Jackson Kowar will leave Gainesville having never ended a season somewhere other than Omaha, and having established consistent national title contention as the bar for a powerhouse program that is still very much pointed in the right direction under Kevin O’Sullivan.

That Florida could not end the bizarre stretch of nearly two decades of the nation’s No. 1 overall seed failing to win a title in college baseball is disappointing, sure. But this Florida team — one which suffered untimely injuries to Schwarz and Singer that helped throw it out of rhythm at the end of the regular season, one which went 8-9 over its last 17 games, and one which inexplicably went from a defensive juggernaut to a sieve in postseason play — also staved off elimination four times in this NCAA Tournament, and fought far more successfully to do so than Florida’s last two No. 1 seeds in Omaha, each of which were evicted from the College World Series without a win.

And if the legacy of this core is finally breaking through in 2017 for the program’s national title and fighting like hell to get a second a year later, it’s a good and fitting one.

Florida tasted the air at the mountaintop last year, and perished while straining to get back there a year later. There has been no higher peak in program history than the one this team found.

But the Gators to come now know they can climb as high as they want.