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Monday, April 22, 2024

Florida’s bullpen crumbles in collapse to Georgia

Closer Brandon Neely allows seven runs in ninth inning

Florida second baseman Cade Kurland hits a grand slam during the Gators' 13-11 loss to the Georgia Bulldogs Friday, April 14, 2023.
Florida second baseman Cade Kurland hits a grand slam during the Gators' 13-11 loss to the Georgia Bulldogs Friday, April 14, 2023.

Florida sophomore closer Brandon Neely made his way to the mound looking to close out a series-opening win with a four-run lead. He allowed a single. Then another. And another. 

With the bases loaded and one out, Georgia left fielder Connor Tate stepped into the batter’s box. The redshirt freshman cracked a game-tying grand slam to completely flip the game’s momentum. The Bulldogs added the go-ahead run and an insurance run before Neely was pulled. 

Florida failed to counterpunch in the bottom of the inning, and the disastrous relief performance served as the final punch in a shocking late collapse.

The No. 3 Florida Gators (28-7, 9-4 SEC) fell to the Georgia Bulldogs (19-15, 4-9 SEC) 13-11 Friday night at Condron Ballpark. UF blew a four-run lead in the ninth inning to drop the series opener.

“The bottom line is this is disappointing, but we can’t let it bleed into tomorrow,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said.

Junior right-hander Brandon Sproat allowed a leadoff single, but the Gators’ outfield snagged a pair of fly balls for two outs. Florida’s ace struck out Bulldogs’ right fielder Corey Collins swinging to post a zero in the first.

UF loaded the bases before getting a hit off Georgia starter Jaden Woods. The lefty pitcher walked a pair and hit another batter to juice the bases for Florida. The Bulldogs forced pop ups from freshman designated hitter Luke Heyman and freshman second baseman Cade Kurland to get out of the jam.

Sproat walked Georgia catcher Fernando Gonzalez to lead off the third inning after the teams traded 1-2-3 frames in the second. Gonzalez advanced to second after a passed ball. 

Shortstop Mason LaPlante grounded to Sproat, but the Gators’ pitcher threw the ball to an empty second base to put runners on the corners. Center fielder Ben Anderson laid down a sacrifice bunt to score Gonzalez and give UGA the early lead.

Bulldogs first baseman Charlie Condon tripled the damage when he uncorked a homer over the left-field fence to give Georgia a 3-0 lead midway through the third.

Florida junior shortstop Josh Rivera cut into the early deficit in the bottom of the inning. He lifted a sacrifice fly to deep right field and junior left fielder Wyatt Langford scored from third. The Gators loaded the bases for Kurland again after Woods walked Heyman.

The freshman infielder hammered a pitch into the left-field berm for a grand slam. Kurland’s four-run blast gave UF a 5-3 lead after three.

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Sproat rebounded from a shaky third inning with his second 1-2-3 inning in the fourth. Florida’s bats failed to extend their lead and handed the ball back to their pitcher for the fifth. Sproat walked Gonzalez again but fanned a pair of hitters and posted another shutout frame.

Riopelle walked, and Heyman singled to put a pair of runners on for Kurland in the bottom of the fifth. The Bulldogs pulled Woods and sent right-hander Will Pearson to the mound. Kurland grounded out to short but shifted the runners into scoring position.

Georgia intentionally walked junior third baseman Colby Halter and forced sophomore right fielder Ty Evans to ground out to get out of the jam.

Condon smoked a leadoff homer — his second of the night — into the Dizney Grove to cut Florida’s lead to one. Sproat recovered from the solo slam and struck out a pair of Bulldogs batters to end the inning. 

Langford and sophomore first baseman Jac Caglianone both hit weak singles into shallow center to put a pair on for Rivera. Langford fooled Georgia reliever Collin Caldwell and stole third base standing up.

Rivera belted a single into left to score Langford and extend the Gators’ lead. Riopelle walked again — his fourth free pass of the night — and loaded the bases for Heyman. The freshman bombed the ball into the left-field berm for Florida’s second grand slam of the night.

The Gators took a commanding 10-4 lead into the seventh inning, and Sproat returned to the mound for another frame of work. He worked another 1-2-3 inning to maintain Florida’s six-run advantage.

Sophomore lefty Philip Abner replaced Sproat in the eighth inning. The Gators’ starter tossed seven innings and allowed four runs on three hits while striking out eight.

Even against a new arm, Condon continued to punish Florida. The redshirt freshman slugger clobbered his third long ball of the night to tie a school record and cut the lead to four. 

“He just had one of those nights,” O’Sullivan said about Condon’s performance.

Collins singled and advanced to second on a wild pitch.

Abner escaped any further damage to close the eighth. He forced a lazy fly ball to right field and struck out a batter looking to hold on to a four-run lead. After a scoreless eighth from the Gators, sophomore closer Brandon Neely came in to see out the ninth inning.

The Bulldogs rattled a pair of singles to put a pair on with no outs. LaPlante slipped a single past Caglianone at first base to load the bases for the top of Georgia’s lineup. Neely responded with a strikeout to inch closer to a win.

Tate came to the plate with a chance to tie the game. He crushed the ball into left field for a game-tying grand slam. After a walk and a throwing error from Caglianone, Bulldogs third baseman Parks Herber doubled to send home the go-ahead run. 

Neely allowed another single, which scored an insurance run for Georgia, before O’Sullivan brought in sophomore right-hander Tyler Nesbitt. 

“Brandon’s been so good for us the entire year,” O’Sullivan said. “Most of the time he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do.”

UGA added another run on a sacrifice fly and nearly scored another, but the runner tripped on his way home and was forced out in a rundown.

Florida redshirt freshman Michael Robertson drove a one-out double into the left-center gap to start a ninth-inning rally. Langford walked to give Caglianone a chance to tie the game with a homer.

Georgia reliever Leighton Finley hit Florida’s star slugger to load the bases for Rivera. The junior shortstop hit a fly ball, and Robertson tagged up from third to cut into the lead. Riopelle was hit by his third pitch of the night to load the bases for Heyman again.

Finley struck out the freshman swinging to secure an improbable come-from-behind victory.

The Gators will look to take their fifth-straight Southeastern Conference series Saturday. First pitch is scheduled for 7 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on SEC Network.

Contact Topher Adams at Follow him on Twitter @Topher_Adams.

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Topher Adams

Topher Adams is a fourth-year communications major and in his fourth semester with the Alligator. He previously covered football, baseball and women's basketball. He also enjoys professional lacrosse and Major League Soccer.

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