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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Gators drowned by Hurricanes in extras after ninth-inning nightmare

The Gators led by five runs with three innings left but couldn’t hold on after five ninth-inning walks

<p>UF pitcher Tommy Mace (left) speaking with coach Kevin O’Sullivan (middle) and catcher Brady Smith (right) during the UM series last year.</p>

UF pitcher Tommy Mace (left) speaking with coach Kevin O’Sullivan (middle) and catcher Brady Smith (right) during the UM series last year.

As a Kris Armstrong fly ball fell limply into Miami first baseman CJ Kayfus’ glove, the Hurricane dugout exploded in a scene no one would have predicted three hours earlier.

After leading by as many as five runs after six innings, Florida couldn’t hold on in regulation. The Gators fell in the 13th inning, 10-9, for their first loss to Miami since 2019.

The day got off to a promising start. The first inning included six Gators reaching base. Freshman right fielder Sterlin Thompson joined the party with his first collegiate RBI in his first ever at-bat.

Miami freshman arm Alejandro Rosario faced all nine UF batters in the opening frame. When he returned to the dugout, Miami was already in a 5-0 hole half an hour after the opening pitch.

Miami scored a run in the second and two more in the top of the fifth to pull the game back to 5-3. But Armstrong and Rivera had back-to-back RBI doubles in the bottom of the fifth to further the stranglehold on the lead 7-3.

Junior righty Jack Leftwich, who was expected to leave after last year, went five innings, allowed two runs and struck out two batters on just five hits in his first start of 2021. 

Second-year catcher Nathan Hickey continued his outstanding offensive series. His second home run of the weekend, in the bottom of the sixth, highlighted a 3-5 day at the plate. 

Hickey is .556 (5-9) at the plate for the series, with a double, 5 RBIs and two walks on top of his two deep shots. His Saturday home run gave the Gators an 8-3 lead after six innings. 

It wasn’t enough.

Florida’s bullpen struggled again in the ninth inning. With the lead now 8-5, transfer Franco Aleman walked three of the first four batters to load the bases.

He hit the next batter with a pitch. One run scored.

He walked the next batter. And the one after that. Suddenly, a game that seemed destined to be an easy Florida victory was now tied.

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“I’ve never seen him do that,” head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said about Aleman.

O’Sullivan said he didn’t pull Aleman because he trusted him. The transfer’s role is to close out the end of games.

“If you start making changes or start making quick decisions this early in the season, if that’s going to potentially be his role, that’s not sending the right message to him,” O’Sullivan said.

After a scoreless bottom of the ninth, Gator fans were treated to what may have been the least-appealing free baseball of their lives.

Both teams had only one hit apiece in the first three extra frames before Miami bounced back in the 13th inning. 

The Hurricanes’ Raymond Gil then singled down the first base line to bring in the go-ahead run. A routine grounder allowed another run when Kris Armstrong couldn’t make the catch at first. After never trailing the entire day, Florida’s hand was forced as it faced a 10-8 deficit.

The Gators didn’t go down without a fight. Back-to-back singles by Hickey and senior third baseman Kirby McMullen brought home one of the two runs they needed.

But another out later and the Armstrong pop out meant the game Sunday would be a series tiebreaker rather than a formality.

“My job is to get these guys ready to play tomorrow,” O’Sullivan said. “We could talk about this all night and how disappointing this loss was, but at the end of the day, our goal is to win a series.”

The final contest of the three-game series is set for Sunday at 1 p.m.

Contact Ryan Haley at rhaley@alligator.org or follow him on Twitter @ryan_dhaley

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Ryan Haley

Ryan Haley is a second-year journalism major with a sports & media specialization from Jacksonville, Florida. He grew up playing a bunch of different sports before settling on golf, following Rory McIlroy and all Philadelphia sports teams. He also loves all things fiction, reading, watching shows and movies and talking about whatever current story or character is in his head.


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