The bullpen of the Florida Gators provided dramatics for the team all season.
Win or lose, relief pitching defined UF from very early on in the season, whether that be blown leads or herculean efforts.
Sunday saw the latter, as freshman Carsten Finnvold threw 27 outs in relief en route to a season-saving victory over Oklahoma.
Monday saw the former.
After a lengthy rain delay, redshirt freshman Ryan Slater allowed four runs in the eighth inning to the Sooners, a back-breaking frame that the Gators failed to recover from, losing 5-4 in a game that came down to the final at-bat.
With the loss, Florida’s tumultuous season is over.
“You can see it in the dugout,” head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “There are guys, obviously upset. But it was real, real raw emotions.”
Starting his day on the right foot was crucial for freshman starting pitcher Brandon Neely. Saturday, the Seville, Florida, native started in the Gators’ first game of the weekend against the Sooners. Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan cut his night short after Neely allowed four runs and three hits through just 2.1 innings en route to UF’s 9-4 loss.
His abbreviated appearance kept the freshman ripe enough to work again Monday, and Neely took advantage of the do-over.
On offense, freshman designated hitter Jac Caglianone opened the scoring with a leadoff “Jac Jack” in the second, a moonshot to right field. After two, the Gators led 1-0.
In each of Florida’s matchups with Oklahoma in the regional, the Gators scored first. Saturday, the Sooners blasted back for a four-run inning after UF took the lead, never looking back.
Sunday, the Gators fought back a rally effort from OU to claim a 7-2 win. Which version of Florida finished Monday’s matinee determined if the team lived to fight next weekend.
Despite Neely’s efforts, the Sooners finally broke through in the fifth. Nine-hole batter sophomore Kendall Pettis managed to lift a flyball over the left-field wall and out of sophomore left fielder Wyatt Langford’s reach to tie the game at one.
Needing rebound runs, UF got exactly that in the bottom half of the fifth.
Sophomore third baseman Colby Halter got on base via an Oklahoma fielding error to open the frame. The Sooners suffered another fielding error, putting junior first baseman BT Riopelle on first and advanced Halter all the way home.
OU led for two outs before Florida crawled back on top.
As a quiet sixth inning unfolded, fans began to shift their eyes to the skies. Ominous, dark clouds crept up from the horizon, and a couple of stark lightning strikes near Ben Hill Griffin Stadium served as the final straw.
Tarp: on. Game: delayed.
After the 3:12 p.m. pause in play, the team’s began to head back to the field over five hours later. At 8:45 p.m., the team returned to the field with grateful applause from the fans who stuck out the stoppage.
Freshman Ryan Slater took over on the mound, delivering a strikeout to close the top of the seventh. That was the lone glimmer of light from his evening.
A leadoff double foreshadowed what was to come for the Palm Harbor, Florida, native. Sophomore shortstop Peyton Graham tied the game with one swing of the bat, a two-run shot tied the game at three (Florida’s third run came in the seventh, a sacrifice fly from freshman right fielder Ty Evans).
O’Sullivan opted to leave Slater in the game, a move that proved unsuccessful. A walk followed the homer, and a single followed the walk to put two runners on base. A groundout registered the first out of the frame but scored the go-ahead run for OU.
A single from freshman second baseman Jack Nicklaus scored the final run of the frame before freshman pitcher Fisher Jameson entered the game in place of Neely to secure the final out; UF had six outs to score two runs or else its season ended Monday.
“No one feels worse than Ryan right now,” O’Sullivan said. “But it’s part of the game. It’s part of life. Losing is not a good feeling.”
Florida squandered the first three of those runs with a three-up-three-down eighth inning. Jameson worked a scoreless ninth, though, setting UF up with a two-run task in the bottom of the ninth.
Sophomore third baseman Colby Halter opened the frame and watched a strikeout. Two outs left.
Langford, in a moment that might unfortunately get lost to the sands of time, crushed his 26th home run of the season to tie Matt LaPorta for most homers in a single season from a Gator.
Thompson, with the crowd on its feet, quickly quieted it with a groundout to first. One out left.
Riopelle marked the last hope for Florida’s season. A 2-2 count turned into a final check swing. The umpire deemed it the swing that proved to be the last of a wild year for UF.
A late-season turnaround from UF proved enough to grant Condron Ballpark the title of host ballpark for an NCAA Regional. Despite the loss to Oklahoma, the turnaround that got Florida to where it ended is still laudable.
“It hurts, but your whole program is built on culture,” O’Sullivan said. “I think this is a big step in building that culture back and getting to where we want to be — playing for a national championship.”
Contact Carson Cashion at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @CarsonCashion.
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.