When Jud Fabian launched his 14th home run of the season to give left-handed Hunter Barco a two-run lead, Florida looked to be in prime position to snatch a victory from Vanderbilt.
UF had its ace on the mound, its best hitter locked in and an early cushion to work with.
The perfect recipe for success.
That was until Barco was pulled from a tie game after just 50 pitches in two innings due to an apparent injury.
After that, the ups and downs of Florida’s bullpen struck again and the Gators (21-13, 5-8) dropped the opening game of their series with Vanderbilt (23-9, 5-7) 5-4.
Gators reliever Blake Purnell, who has had a wild year, hit another low in the ninth inning. He walked Commodore sophomore Enrique Bradfield Jr. to lead off the inning, who then stole second and advanced to third on an error by sophomore Josh Rivera. Vandy’s electric base runner is now 19-for-19 on steal attempts this season.
After the Gators issued an intentional walk to load the bases and set up the force at any base, catcher Jack Bulger ripped a single to right and the Commodores walked it off. It is the third time this season that Purnell has been walked-off on.
The young Florida bullpen has been up-and-down all season and here they hit another valley. The Gators got zero outs in the ninth inning and lost a game in which they did not trail until the final at-bat of the game.
It is an extremely disappointing start to a series that is imperative to Florida’s chances of being in position to host a Super Regional later this year.
Reverting back to Barco, he simply did not look like himself before exiting. He started the game off with two strikeouts, but proceeded to allow three straight singles that let Vanderbilt cut the deficit to 2-1.
Then in the second inning, he allowed a leadoff home run to left fielder Calvin Hewett to tie the game. After the Gators looked in great position to cruise, their superstar ace rapidly gave it all back.
Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan told the ESPN2 broadcast that removing Barco was a precautionary measure. He told the booth Barco had not been feeling well during the week and looked drained during the game, causing Florida to be careful with their ace and pulling him.
That does not suggest Barco’s next start is in jeopardy, but it is certainly something to keep an eye on.
Luckily for Florida, freshman Nick Ficarrotta kept things in check following Barco’s early exit. He worked three scoreless innings and racked up three strikeouts. It was hugely important for him to provide some length and stability, so that the Gators kept their bullpen intact for the weekend.
While Ficarrotta was dealing, Florida took advantage and retook the lead. Left fielder Wyatt Langford led off the fourth with a double, then first baseman Kendrick Calilao traded places with him to take a 3-2 lead.
Langford would spark the offense — as he usually does — again in the fifth, driving in third baseman Deric Fabian to double the lead to 4-2.
However, things got rocky for Ficarrotta in the sixth. He walked the first batter, then let up a single and had two on with nobody out. Vanderbilt dropped down a sac-bunt, and with one out O’Sullivan went to the pen for southpaw Philip Abner.
He got a fly ball to center off the bat of pinch hitter Jonathan Vastine, bringing in a run and cutting the deficit to 4-3.
O’Sullivan played the matchup and went to right-hander Ryan Slater for the next hitter. He spiked his second pitch into the game and it went to the backstop, allowing the tying run to score.
As great as Ficarrotta was, he was charged with both runs that tied the game and Florida found themselves right back where it started.
In the seventh, the Commodores got two runners on with two outs and O’Sullivan went to his trusty right-hander Blake Purnell. The freshman has come through on many occasions for Florida and did again here, rolling a ground ball to get out of the jam.
Purnell was great in the eighth, until it all went wrong in the ninth. It just shows the kind of year that he has had, so reliable at times and so unreliable at others.
The series continues tomorrow at 7 p.m. and can be seen on the SEC Network. Right-hander Brandon Sproat starts for Florida and left-hander Carter Holton gets the ball for Vanderbilt.
Contact Ethan Budowsky at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ethanbudowsky.