Rain poured over Florida Ballpark Friday afternoon to set the scene for the first round of the Gainesville Regional.
The regional host Florida Gators baseball team welcomed the fourth-seed South Florida Bulls to the Swamp for an explosive but wet nine-inning contest. When the clouds cleared and the two-hour,18-minute rain delay came to a close, the contest played out to a 5-3 USF victory to move the Gators within a loss of their season ending.
South Florida’s Nelson Rivera landed the first blow in the second frame with a beaming line drive. UF left fielder Jacob Young tried to make the sliding grab but fumbled the ball when he hit the corner of the wall. USF’s Jake Sullivan sprinted his way around the bag to home plate and the score read 1-0.
In the next inning, redshirt junior Riley Hogan swung through a Tommy Mace fastball and smacked the ball inches beyond UF right fielder Sterlin Thompson’s glove for a shallow home run to the right-field lawn.
Hogan breathed a sigh of relief then trotted around the bases to celebrate the home run and, when he reached home plate again, the Bulls held a 2-0 advantage.
Florida third baseman Nathan Hickey said Thursday the team put extra work into their hitting, and the freshman’s focus was on full display after he went two-for-three while recording two RBIs and a double.
Hickey’s offensive tear started with a rocket line drive to center field in the third inning to open the door for Young to tally Florida’s first score and cut the deficit to a single run. In his next at-bat, Hickey dribbled a ground ball down the left-field line for an RBI single.
The freshman didn’t feel that the rain had too much of an impact on their gameplay and that it was more of an internal struggle.
“I really don’t think the rain delay had any affect on us, I feel like maybe a little bit. I feel like some people just didn’t come to play today,” Hickey said, “I felt really good out there and I’m sure a bunch of other people did but I mean there’s just sometimes that other guys aren’t mentally [in the game]”
When asked about the emotions of the dugout after the loss, Hickey responded with a hopeful tomorrow.
“Right now the vibes aren’t where they should be. But I’m sure we’ll come together tomorrow and play a lot better.”
The teams traded blows like two heavyweight boxers until the final bell rang. USF leadoff hitter Carmine Lane stepped in the batter’s box for a third time in the fifth inning and cracked a booming solo shot to left field to increase the Bulls lead back to two runs and dampen Florida’s confidence.
Right-handed ace Tommy Mace got the start after the selection show on Monday afternoon and pitched through a full five innings before handing duties off to reliever Christian Scott after the rain delay.
Mace finished his stance on the mound with three earned runs and four strikeouts, but Scott only lasted four outs after a double-error by center fielder Jud Fabian cursed the Gators in the seventh.
A routine pop-fly soared in the sky as Fabian tracked it down through his sunglasses, but the ball popped in and out of his glove. Fabian attempted to snag the ball barehanded to recover lost time but he overthrew the cut off man.
Four Gators stared as the ball rolled aimlessly through the infield and, Carmine Lane sprang into action and jogged to third base to set himself 90 feet from home plate.
A late-game home run from Florida designated hitter Kris Armstrong, his eighth of the season, softened the first-round loss in the eighth inning, but Florida could never claw itself back further.
After the upset loss, Florida will fall to the losers bracket of the regional and play either the Miami Hurricanes or South Alabama Jaguars at noon Saturday for the right to stay alive in the postseason. The game will be broadcasted on SEC Network.
Contact Jesse Richardson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JesseRich352