HOOVER, Ala. — On a steamy, emotional, maddening, marathon Saturday, the No. 3-seed Florida baseball team walked away from Regions Park with a spot in the Southeastern Conference Tournament finals.
“It was long, hot day. It was a frustrating day. It was an emotional day. But I’m glad we came out and scored a run there in the last inning,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said.
The Gators (44-16) scratched and clawed their way to a must-win 3-2 victory over Georgia (31-30) in second game of the day between the two teams, completing a rollercoaster afternoon filled with sportsmanship, shock and dead-arms.
With the contest tied in the ninth, Gators shortstop Nolan Fontana hustled for a RBI fielder’s choice to plate the winning run in a steam-less barnburner.
After a prolonged first game, UGA and UF played a back-and-forth second game neither seemed interested in winning until late.
Freshman Karsten Whitson took the mound for Florida, but the right-handed phenom struggled early before settling down and tossing three good frames.
Whitson allowed two early runs, but he used an overpowering fastball to limit Bulldogs hitters.
The righty finished with 5.1 innings, scattering five hits, three walks and three strikeouts.
In the third inning, the Gators tied the game after Fontana got ahead in the count and ripped a get-me-over fastball for a two-run blast.
But the scoring abruptly stopped as both team’s bullpens were lights out all afternoon. UF’s pen continued its recent dominance, but perhaps more impressive was Georgia’s beleaguered relievers stifling Florida's big bats all day.
In Game 2, all four Bulldogs pitchers had ERAs over six, but they allowed just six hits.
“The great thing about it is it looks like going to a Regional we picked up some extra guys,” UGA coach Dave Perno said. “To be honest, coming into that second game, these guys don’t have good numbers and have struggled the majority of the year. It gives team a lot of confidence moving forward.”
The day started with special festivities as Georgia’s Jonathan Taylor — the UGA outfielder partially paralyzed earlier this season after a violent collision — was honored before Game 1 with a video tribute and sat in Bulldogs dugout for just the second time since his freak injury.
But as O’Sullivan said afterwards, “the day just had a weird feel from the beginning,” and moment’s later, Gators lefty starter Brian Johnson was scarily hurt in a bizarre mishap involving Gators catcher Mike Zunino.
With two outs and already trailing 2-0 in the first, Johnson threw a wild pitch that skipped off Zunino’s mitt. The SEC Player of the Year attempted to throw out a runner advancing to second, but the ball drilled Johnson in the back of the head, immediately knocking him unconscious.
The southpaw lied lifeless for several minutes, but he regained consciousness and was taken to a local hospital. According to a UF spokesperson, Johnson suffered a mild concussion but all tests were negative. The sophomore was able to remember what occurred and was later released from the hospital.
Following the chilling scene, Zunino was shaken up, and an unlikely person was the first to console him.
Before the game, the entire Gators roster went over and shook Taylor’s hand, and the sportsmanship was returned when Perno went to comfort Zunino after he beamed Johnson.
“I just told [Zunino] he’s going to be all right,” he said. “He’s too good of a player. That’s always the guy you worry about. When Zach and Taylor collided, Zach was the one I was concerned about because he was wearing it. Having been through those types of situations, I didn’t want him to feel like it was his fault.”
O’Sullivan said Zunino was visibly emotional, but that “he’s awfully proud of the way he handled things.”
“He was the first guy I went to when we found out [Johnson] was ok,” UF’s manager said.
While Taylor’s return provided the Bulldogs an emotional lift, Johnson’s injury shell-shocked the Gators.
Although Florida tied the game in the bottom half of the first — knocking around UGA’s overwhelmed sophomore right-hander Earl Daniels in his first career start — the Gators appeared dazed for the rest of the contest.
Florida loaded the bases with two outs in the second but failed to break through. Georgia responded with two runs in the next frame, taking a lead it never relinquished.
The Bulldogs continuously fought all afternoon, needing just one win to extend their season and guarantee themselves a spot in the NCAA Tournament. With their backs against the wall while running out of arms, Perno turned to ace Michael Palazzone, and the junior put forth a gutsy performance.
“I’m probably as proud of this team of any we’ve ever had,” UGA’s coach said.
Three days after starting against Vanderbilt in Georgia’s first game in Hoover, Palazzone tossed four innings in relief, propelling the Dawgs to victory.
Using his devastatingly slow breaking ball, Palazzone thwarted UF's powerful lineup just long enough for Perno to turn the game over to his best two relievers.
“Luckily my arm feels like rubber so it was easy to get back out there,” Palazzone said. “It was a huge team effort. We were all going to pick each other up.”
Nearly lost in the shuffle of the draining afternoon was UF right-hander Anthony DeScalfani’s spirited performance.
The hard-throwing junior was phenomenal in instant relief, tossing a career-high 7.1 innings after Johnson was hurt. Unlike his previous couple appearances, DeSclafani wasn’t overthrowing. After allowing two runs in the third, he tossed four clean frames, frustrating a team that had shelled the righty earlier this season.
“I thought Anthony was outstanding,” O’Sullivan said. “He mixed his pitches well. That should really help his confidence going into the postseason. We’ve always thought as a coaching staff that he was one of the key guys.”
For the second straight day, the Gators were aggressive on the basepaths and continually moved runners into scoring position. O’Sullivan called another successful double steal in Game 1, as UF swiped seven bases Saturday. Pigott stole three in two games, although the Gators were caught stealing twice and picked off another time.
Both teams were gassed for Game 2, but after DeSclafani’s outing, the Gators had all their top arms available and looked poised for a sprint to the finals. But despite Perno practically conceding the second game, Florida couldn’t break away from Georgia until the very end.
The Bulldogs gave the Gators ample chances with extra-outs and errors, but they remained pesky all afternoon until tiring late.
“The way we played that second game I’m shocked. We make all those errors but our pitchers kept us in it,” Perno said. “That first game was really special for our program, allowed us to go to the second game without a whole lot of pressure.”
In the ninth inning of a tied Game 2, UF’s Vickash Ramjit worked a tough at-bat before roping a ball down the line for a leadoff double. After a Pigott sacrifice and a Cody Dent walk, Fontana chopped a ball toward second for a potential inning-ending double play. But Florida's shortstop hustled out of the box and beat the throw, giving the Gators a one-run lead.
“All I was thinking was get there before the ball, and I was fortunate to beat it out and we got the win,” Fontana said.
The Bulldogs didn’t quit in their half of the ninth as Austin Maddox nearly made things interesting before he notched his fifth save in as many chances, sending the Gators to the tournament finals.
Florida plays Vanderbilt tomorrow at 1 p.m for the SEC Tournament Championship.