Clutch players make a name for themselves for always being in the right place at the right time.
Wednesday night, the Gators trailed 6-4 to Alabama when Florida catcher BT Riopelle approached the plate. The fifth-year senior blasted a shot to deep right field for a walk-off three-run home run.
Riopelle looked like he was still riding the high early in the contest Thursday. He was one of the few UF batters that worked their way around the Commodores’ pitching.
The catcher had already recorded his first home run of the outing, and in the seventh inning, with two outs and the bases loaded, Riopelle continued his monumental Southeastern Conference tournament run with a go-ahead grand slam.
The No. 1 seed Florida Gators (44-13, 20-10 SEC) defeated the No. 4 seed Vanderbilt Commodores (38-18, 19-11) 6-3 Thursday at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Alabama. Riopelle hit his second and third home runs of the tournament to advance the Gators to the semifinal round Saturday.
The Commodores got off to a hot start. Vanderbilt junior outfielder Enrique Bradfield Jr. attacked the first pitch he saw and hit a left-field triple. VU third baseman Davis Diaz hit a chopper to third and scored Bradfield on a ground ball.
It took just five pitches for Florida junior starting pitcher Brandon Sproat to surrender his first run, but the junior quickly rebounded from his early mistake.
Sproat pitched a 1-2-3 second inning and gave up a couple of singles the next few frames, but worked his way out of the jams.
Meanwhile, the Gators offense appeared dormant.
Vanderbilt left-handed pitcher Hunter Owen — who made his first appearance since May 5 — effortlessly maneuvered through the UF's lineup.
The lefty carved the strike zone and committed only one mistake in his three-frame outing. Florida evened the score at the start of the second inning when freshman utility player Luke Heyman hit a solo blast to deep center.
The Gators took the lead in the fourth inning when Riopelle clobbered a 435 foot no-doubter to right field and positioned Sproat to take over on the mound.
Through four innings of work, the right-hander gave up just one extra-base-hit — Bradfield’s triple on the first pitch — and navigated to the fifth inning.
Sophomore shortstop Jonathan Vastine led-off the fifth frame for the Commodores and knocked a single up the middle. Back-to-back groundouts advanced Vastine to third, and the sophomore scored when Diaz earned his second run-batted-in on a single through the left side.
Fatigue appeared to set in during Sproat’s performance after he began his sixth frame. The junior retired two of his first three batters before the Commodores’ five-hole hitter Jack Bulger reached first on a misthrow by UF junior shortstop Josh Rivera.
Sproat allowed a single and tossed a four-pitch walk. The blunders triggered a mound visit from Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan to solve the bases-loaded jam. The Gators head coach allowed the junior to finish the inning, and Sproat forced a dribbler back to the mound, which he fired to first to get out of the mess.
Despite the fact the Commodores made three pitching changes before the sixth inning, each Vanderbilt pitcher found a way to oust the Gators’ hitters. Florida totaled eight strikeouts when it entered the sixth inning, and Commodores sophomore relief pitcher Bryce Cunningham continued to dictate UF’s bats.
The six-foot-five-inch righty struck out the side in the sixth and worked his way to the seventh inning.
Cunningham retired his first batter but his command suddenly began to malfunction.
The reliever walked freshman second baseman Cade Kurland, plunked sophomore two-way player Jac Caglianone and walked Rivera, granting another opportunity for Riopelle to become the difference maker.
The senior blasted a deep shot to left field for a grand slam and lifted the Gators to a 6-2 lead.
The Commodores added another run when Vastine hit a solo shot off of UF sophomore right-hander Ryan Slater in the eighth, but Florida lefty reliever Philip Abner sealed the contest with a 1-2-3 ninth inning and struck out the top of Vanderbilt’s order.
Florida’s tournament run will continue Saturday against the winner of Game 14 between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Vanderbilt Commodores on Friday. The game will be broadcast on the SEC Network, and the start time is to be announced.
Luke Adragna is a third-year journalism student and the Florida Gators football reporter at The Alligator. He is a cat ethusiast and completes the NYT Daily Mini in less than a minute each day.