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Florida escapes Gainesville Regional behind Jonah Girand’s whale of a weekend

An unlikely hero powered Florida past a surprisingly tough Gainesville Regional field.

@GatorsBB

It’s the sort of fish tale you wouldn’t believe if someone told it to you straight.

Okay, they’re the best team in the country, right? Only they haven’t been playing like it lately. Ace’s been out. Senior leader’s been hurt. They came into the tournament having lost five of six.

They needed to come back against some Ivy Leaguers. And they barely beat the little in-state school the next day — though, get this: The replacement for that senior leader and captain, who’s essentially never played, hits the game-winning homer.

And then the rains come — they always do — and they don’t get to play the next game until a full day after it should’ve started. And they lose that game ... while three players, including the starting pitcher and third baseman, get drafted during it.

And they trail in the nightcap — it’s double elimination, so they get one — too, scuffling from the first inning.

Until that backup catcher hits another homer.

And then they win. Crazy, right?

But it’s all true.

Florida survived its Gainesville Regional in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, vanquishing Florida Atlantic by a 5-2 score in the decisive Game 7 of the Regional after dropping a 7-4 decision to the Owls earlier in the night. The Gators got to that stage by routing Columbia, 13-5, on Friday and edging Jacksonville, 3-2, on Saturday — and then enduring rain that washed out a scheduled chance to advance on Sunday for almost 24 hours.

And they wouldn’t have been able to do it without Jonah Girand’s whale of a weekend.

Girand caught every inning in all four games, and generally backstopped Florida’s arsenal of live arms well, which was feat enough for JJ Schwarz’s injury replacement. But his work at the plate far eclipsed his time behind it, as he swatted three homers — three of his first five hits as a Gator! — and socked the game-winning dingers against both Jacksonville and FAU.

The solo shot to extend Florida’s lead over the Dolphins to a 3-0 edge would prove to be a game-winner after the fact, as Florida ace Brady Singer let up two runs to narrow the Gators’ edge.

The two-run shot to give Florida its first lead against the Owls, one the Gators would keep for the rest of the night, felt seismic. Girand deposited a 1-1 pitch well outside McKethan Stadium’s left-field bleachers to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead for the Gators — and it seemed to visibly relax a tense club that had been pressing to answer the Owls’ early flurries all day.

Of course, the subtle, Mark McGwire-style bat flip was more a reflection of Girand’s own confidence and joy in coming through than any sort of message to his teammates.

Girand hit homers in all three of Florida’s wins over the weekend, bringing his career total to three — and he failed to hit safely without homering, bringing his average to a robust .250 on the year. And yet Girand, whose circuitous route to Florida included two junior colleges and a year working in retail between them, is indisputably hitting well enough to have earned a place in Florida’s order for the rest of the season, possibly even displacing Schwarz — still recovering from a fracture in his hand — to first base from his customary spot behind the plate.

The Gators would seem to need some pop in the lineup at the moment, as scoring runs without homering has become something of a struggle for them. Only in Florida’s 13-5 rout of Columbia did the majority of the Gators’ runs not come via homer this weekend, and just two of the 12 runs Florida scored after Friday came without a batter running into a ball and then touching every base.

Overall, Florida garnered 14 runs from 10 homers in the Gainesville Regional — and scored 25 runs in total. And while relying on the long ball might actually work for Florida without Girand — India and Wil Dalton each pushed their seasonal totals to 19 dingers thanks partly to a back-to-back shots against both Columbia and FAU, Dalton hit two homers against Columbia, and Blake Reese and Deacon Liput each hit homers in Monday’s early (“early”) game — it sure is helpful to have Girand’s lively bat in the lineup to bolster the bottom of Florida’s order.

That’s especially true if Florida’s pitching and defense are as spotty as they were this weekend.

Singer was excellent in his first start in a few weeks, allowing just two runs on five hits over seven innings to Jacksonville, but Jackson Kowar coughed up five runs in his start against FAU, and Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich each ran into early trouble before being rescued by Florida’s bullpen (Mace) and righting the ship (Leftwich), respectively. And while Florida’s bullpen work was good on the whole, Michael Byrne played with fire in both of his appearances, allowing runners to get to third in ultimately scoreless innings en route to two saves.

Florida also booted the ball around in the field, committing six errors in the four games — a total that actually seems low in retrospect. India was the primary culprit, getting charged with two errors in Florida’s win over FAU and repeatedly throwing wide of third on relatively routine plays, but no infielder seemed perfectly comfortable with throwing to first on Monday, and the Gators as a team appeared a step slow on a water-logged field against the Owls, with several balls squirting just past diving infielders and dropping right in front of outfielders.

Those struggles and mistakes are in the past now. But while Florida was one of a mere eight regional hosts to advance to a Super Regional on a weekend when chaos reigned in college baseball, the Gators might not be able to get away with them in the next round.

Up next for the Gators is a Super Regional against one of those teams that emerged from the chaos: Auburn, led by No. 1 pick Casey Mize. The Tigers return to Gainesville after the Gators took two of three from them — including a win over Mize in which Jonathan India overshadowed a highly-anticipated duel between Mize and Singer — in late April, and will meet Florida at noon on both Saturday and Sunday, with the early starts likely an effort to avoid potential inclement weather in the afternoon.

And Auburn is a better team than any of the three Florida saw this weekend. The Gators will almost certainly need to be better in their own right to get past the Tigers and back to the College World Series.

It sure would help if another Gator could whale on the ball like Girand.