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Florida 3, FSU 2: Gators’ walk-off homer provides peek at the possible

Florida’s joyous walk-off win over its rival could be the shot in the arm this team needs.

Florida Gators

Before he was Tuesday night’s hero — the first walk-off home run hero in Florida Ballpark history, and a savior for his Gators when they desperately needed one — Kendrick Calilao was just one of many potential goats.

In the seventh inning, with runners on the corners and two outs, Calilao, a third-year sophomore with a history of heroics against Florida State, pinch-hit for ineffective freshman cleanup hitter Sterlin Thompson, who had fanned with Jacob Young on second base in the fifth inning. With the game tied at 2-2 and Calilao able to quickly get a 2-1 count, the breakthrough the Gators had sought all night — maybe all season — seemed like it could have been at hand.

But FSU’s Jack Anderson — who struck out Thompson in his first at-bat in relief of starter Carson Montgomery — had another plan, working back to a 2-2 count and forcing Calilao to foul off a breaking ball to extend the inning. And then he piped a fastball just off the center of the plate and slightly above Calilao’s knees — one that Calilao took for strike three with his bat on his shoulder.

That left the seventh and eighth men on base for the Gators on the night, but that dire number barely tells the full story. Calilao’s at-bat also represented the Gators’ third chance to score runs after an FSU error after two errors helped plate two runs in the bottom of the second inning, and maintained an 0-fer night with runners on for Florida, which needed sac flies to get those runs home from a bases-loaded, no-outs situation in that second inning.

Finally, it was the third of three times Florida would let an inning end with a runner on third.

In a game that was an unconventional pitchers’ duel, though, it wasn’t fatal for Florida.

Starter Garrett Milchin tossed arguably his best innings as a Gator on Tuesday, striking out five and allowing just one earned run in six innings after a four-pitch leadoff walk, a double, an error, and a sac fly in the fourth. For Milchin, whose career was sideswiped by injuries and is resuming after he didn’t play in any of the last three Florida seasons, it was a welcome sea change from all but throwing batting practice to the Seminoles in Tallahassee, where they teed off on him for seven earned runs in just 1.2 innings of work in March en route to a 10-2 rout.

But his reliever was even more impressive — especially given the context. Jack Leftwich, at least temporarily exiled from Florida’s weekend rotation after years as a Saturday starter, was coming off maybe his most disastrous outing of the year at Tennessee last Saturday, in which he fired eight straight balls without a strike in relief, helping to extend a five-run inning that swung not just that game but the series to the Vols.

Against the Seminoles, no trace of that Leftwich was present. In four hitless innings of work, Leftwich permitted just one walk — in the top of the 10th inning, with one out, and after recovering from a 1-2 count turned full with a swinging strikeout. And he quickly extinguished that threat, too, getting a one-pitch flyout and a three-pitch K to run his strikeout total to seven — one off his season high, which came in an eight-inning start against Florida A&M.

Together, Milchin and Leftwich allowed just three hits — all to FSU’s Robby Martin — and two walks while striking out 12, representing maybe Florida’s best pitching of the season, and certainly its most surprising success.

And that’s what allowed Florida’s equally hog-tied offense — which had earned the same three hits and two runs FSU got all night through nine innings, with the advantage of an additional walk, and had tallied 13 strikeouts in its own right — to have a chance to win the game on one swing in the bottom of the 10th.

Without Milchin and Leftwich gritting their teeth and building their own redemption arcs, there might not have been one available to Calilao. And like his two teammates on the bump, he came through in a big way, ripping a sinking line drive to deep left that just cleared the low fence to Florida Ballpark’s new berm seating.

Calilao — who previously cranked a grand slam against the Seminoles in 2019 — would hop into a mass of delirious Gators at home plate at the end of his race around the bases, and emerge from it exuberant and shirtless, in one of the rare images of pure joy we’ve seen from this team in this year.

And that joy — which, on this night, surely carried tinges of relief and revenge — will hopefully be what this team chases over the rest of the regular season.

Florida’s expected romp through that schedule has certainly not been a joyful one to date. Since losing their season-opening series to Miami — close, late, and in large part due to just not being as great as expected — the Gators have largely been unable to find the form nearly every pundit around college baseball predicted would be possible for this loaded team.

The three-ace rotation of Tommy Mace, Leftwich, and Hunter Barco has mostly been anywhere from shaky to bad against top competition. Florida’s expected powerhouse offense has only materialized now and again, with projected top pick Jud Fabian’s struggles against off-speed pitches helping to weaken the top of the order. The Gators’ bullpen has been an adventure — and it was so even before closer Franco Aleman was converted to an emergency starter in manager Kevin O’Sullivan’s unexpected benching of Mace and Leftwich for the Gators’ critical series against Ole Miss. Even Florida’s defense, usually an unquestioned strength for a team with excellent athletes everywhere on the field, has been atypically leaky this spring.

But what O’Sullivan has done to tinker with the Gators has also more or less paid off.

Florida took two of three from the Rebels with Aleman and Christian Scott starting the first two games of that series, and the 8-2 loss in Scott’s start belonged almost entirely to Leftwich, who blew up to allow six runs in 3.1 innings of work.

Turning Aleman and Scott — each excellent relievers who will probably end up back in the bullpen by the postseason — into potential spot starters was originally perceived as an act of desperation meant to turn the heat up on Mace and (especially) Leftwich, who were finding trouble too early in their weekend work to hand over defensible leads to a somewhat shaky bullpen. But it’s now revealed both Aleman and Scott as capable starters and, after Tuesday’s breakthrough, Leftwich as a capable reliever, and that gives Florida a fair bit of flexibility it didn’t have a month ago.

Shuffling Fabian up and down the order has seemingly helped him marginally, but a renewed focus on patience may be boosting him at present: He’s got four walks and just two Ks in his last three games, just three strikeouts in his last six games, and three games with no Ks in that six-game span — which is more than Fabian recorded over the first 23 games of his season. And given that the Gators center fielder had 16 strikeouts in a five-game stretch against South Carolina and Ole Miss, cutting Ks down to nearly zero is very encouraging even in a small sample size.

Even Sully’s pinch-hit calls are working out at present. The Gators stole the third game of their weekend trip to Knoxville thanks to a three-run shot from pinch-hitter Kris Armstrong — a brawny slugger who hasn’t produced the power desired this year — and got their first walk-off homer in gleaming Florida Ballpark off Calilao’s bat last night.

And all that has only gotten Florida a 22-11 record and a 6-6 mark in SEC play. Were a typical NCAA Tournament to begin today, the Gators might just barely merit hosting duties for a Regional, but their fortunes for that and any prospect of hosting a Super Regional would certainly seem to be relying on being selected as one of the NCAA’s predetermined sites as the organization plots out a plan to play during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The good news, as least as the SEC schedule is concerned, is that the Gators are about to hit their soft spot: Weekend series against Missouri and Auburn are up next, and those Tigers are last in the East and West divisions, respectively, and hold the only overall losing record in a deep and rugged league.

And though Florida will still have to meet elites in the form of Vanderbilt — and future MLBers Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter — and Arkansas after this fortnight of good fortune, the Gators at least get to host the Commodores, which is manna from heaven for a team that has tallied 20 of its 22 wins at home.

This team and program could use a bit more of that, as so much of what it has done this season seems like success — or failure — produced under the duress of immense pressure. When mostly these same Gators bolted to the best start in school history a year ago, it felt magical; this year, attempting to recreate the same wizardry has resulted in puffs of smoke and a smattering of applause.

But back-to-back wins that showed their resilience and resulted in smiles feel like they could be the beginning of something different and new for these Gators — or at least reminders that the game can be fun, rather than a slog.

And while anything is still possible for a team this deep and experienced, even the widely-forecast national championship, I’d probably settle for this Florida team finding fun.