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Monday, May 27, 2024

Gators fall to top-ranked Vols in tournament finale

UT scored a combined seven runs in back-to-back innings

<p>Florida&#x27;s Sterlin Thompson eyes a hit and runs down the first base line against Jacksonville on March 14, 2021.</p>

Florida's Sterlin Thompson eyes a hit and runs down the first base line against Jacksonville on March 14, 2021.

HOOVER, Ala — Freshman Carsten Finnvold, making his fifth collegiate appearance and first career start, faced “David vs. Goliath” type odds. 

Tennessee entered the tournament leading in just about any offensive statistic one would like to keep track of. Batting average, slugging percentage, hits, RBIs, doubles, triples, home runs – head coach Tony Vitello has built a juggernaut in Knoxville, Tennessee. 

His team is the first to let anyone who will listen know about it.

And yet, despite the odds, Finnvold played like a seasoned veteran. The Boca Raton, Florida, native opened the game with four scoreless frames against the best team in the country, allowing just one hit.

Still, a fifth-inning explosion followed by a three-run sixth sufficiently iced a game in which the UF offense was nowhere to be found until it was too late. The seven-seeded Florida Gators fell in the Sunday finale to the top-seeded Vols’, 8-5.

The one hit was frightening for Gators fans, though. A leadoff triple from Vols junior shortstop Cortland Lawson put the first run of the game 90 feet from home with zero outs. Despite the pressure of the game-altering situation, Finnvold remained as cool as the other side of the pillow.

Two infield pop-outs ended the thought of a sacrifice fly, and Finnvold caught the final batter of the frame looking for his fourth strikeout of the day. He ended the ballgame with six K’s.

Finnvold needed that level of quality, because the offense did him no favors. Florida put enough runners in scoring position, but failed to bring enough home.

“He did exactly what he needed to do to give us a chance to win today,” head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said.

Finally, in the fifth, UT broke through. A fielding error put the leadoff batter on second, and a follow-up single put runners on the corners.

Junior left fielder Seth Stephenson laid a perfect squeeze-bunt to bring the third-base runner home. An ensuing strikeout brought right fielder Jordan Beck to the plate, but Finnvold opted to intentionally walk him. That put center fielder Drew Gilbert at the plate with the bases loaded.

The predominantly Tennessee orange-claden crowd rose to its feet, and exploded as Gilbert drove a line drive into left field to score every base runner. With an offense as lethal as the Vols’, one regrettable pitch is all it can take.

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This time, it’s all it took. 

The Gators dugout appeared shell-shocked by the turnaround. After a quick three-batter frame to close the fifth, Tennessee responded with a trio of runs in the sixth to effectively put the game away.

Florida continued to lack the ability to bring runs in until it was too late. UF plated three runs in the eighth, raising the eyebrows of fans in attendance, but a soul-crushing groundout from sophomore catcher Mac Guscette stranded two baserunners.

Gilbert drilled one last homer in the ninth to score UT’s eighth, but it was far from necessary; UF managed one run in the ninth, but not enough to force extra innings.

Florida finds out if the team will host a regional Sunday. The following weekend, the road to Omaha, Nebraska, for the College World Series begins.

“Do I think we’re one of the top 16 teams in the country,” O’Sullivan said. “Absolutely.”

Contact Carson Cashion at Follow him on Twitter @CarsonCashion.

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Carson Cashion

Carson Cashion is a third-year sports journalism major at UF, and the sports editor at The Alligator for the 2022 summer semester. A native of Altamonte Springs, Carson spends his free time walking his dog, Baxter, and listening to good music. He is an avid Tennessee sports fan, and eagerly awaits watching one of his teams win a championship for the first time.

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