The long ball played the difference in the opening game of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Gainesville Super Regional.
Florida hit three home runs to come back from an early two-run deficit after a shaky start from junior right-handed starter Brandon Sproat.
The No. 2 seed Florida Gators (49-15, 20-10 SEC) defeated the No. 15 seed South Carolina Gamecocks (42-20, 16-13 SEC) 5-4 Friday in game one at Condron Family Ballpark.
The announced attendance of 8,439 was not only the largest attendance recorded in Gators history, but the largest on-campus attendance ever at any college ballpark in the state of Florida.
“It was so loud, man. Sometimes you can’t even hear yourself think,” Florida junior outfielder Tyler Shelnut said. “It pushes us for sure.”
The Gamecocks jumped out to a quick start in their 14th NCAA Super Regional appearance. Fifth-year designated hitter Will McGillis connected on the second pitch of the game and sent a deep fly that narrowly roped around the left field foul pole for a solo home run.
South Carolina had Sproat’s pitches timed up early. They recorded three additional hits in the first inning and Gamecocks junior first baseman Gavin Kasas plated another run with a run-batted-in single to right-center field.
There was a swift response from the Gators later in the first. South Carolina junior right-hander James Hicks retired his first two batters, and after surrendering a single to UF sophomore two-way player Jac Caglianone, junior shortstop Josh Rivera stepped up to the plate.
Rivera clobbered a 93 mph fastball that landed outside of the ballpark and tied the game at two runs apiece.
Rivera has opened all three postseason tournaments — the Southeastern Conference tournament, Gainesville Regional and Gainesville Super Regional — with two-run home runs in the first inning.
The stalemate was short lived due to a rowdy second inning from the Gamecocks offense. Senior left fielder Dylan Brewer led off the inning with a single and was brought home with McGillis’ second RBI of the game.
Sproat surrendered a double and intentionally walked South Carolina freshman outfielder Ethan Petry to load up the bases for a forceout at all four bags. He gathered a comebacker and fired towards home for a rare 1-2-3 double play.
The righty changed his approach after the rough first couple of innings and shied away from his fastball.
“They were ambushing fastball,” UF senior catcher BT Riopelle said. “We had to adjust, and we did.”
The spurts of offense died down for both teams until the fifth frame.
Gamecocks senior shortstop Braylen Wimmer drove a chopping ground ball back to the mound and Sproat stuck his palm out in an attempt to bare-hand the ball. He fumbled the grab, but gathered the ball on the ground and simultaneously spun while firing a throw to first.
Caglianone was unable to glove the wild throw by Sproat and tangled legs with Wimmer while he pursued the ball.
First base umpire Greg Street pointed to the runner gesturing that he was awarded second base, but the call was misunderstood by the crew, and Wimmer was tagged out while gingerly jogging to second.
Riopelle earned the second out of the inning when he gunned down Petry attempting to steal second base, and Sproat tossed a swinging strikeout for the final out.
Shelnut led off the bottom of the fifth with a solo home run that landed beyond the left field berm and out of the ballpark.
“I’ll remember that for the rest of my life,” Shelnut said.
Florida junior third baseman Colby Halter followed with a double to right field and reached third with a groundout by senior left fielder Richie Schiekofer.
Halter’s trip around the bases ended just shy of home plate after junior outfielder Wyatt Langford smoked a ground ball to the mound. The ball struck Hicks and he quickly fired a throw to first for the final out.
Sproat finalized his last appearance of the night in the sixth with another clean inning of work and allowed no runs.
South Carolina head coach Mark Kingston made a call to the bullpen and gestured for junior right-hander Will Sanders to take command of the hill. Sanders appeared to be in total control after striking out his first two batters, but Riopelle drove a ball past the center field wall that struck the batter’s eye to make it a 4-3 Gators lead.
Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan placed freshman left-handed reliever Cade Fisher into the contest at the start of the seventh. The lefty recorded two clean innings and allowed just one hit.
Shelnut tacked on an insurance run and blooped a two-out RBI single that brought home Rivera in the bottom of the eighth.
Gators All-SEC sophomore reliever Brandon Neely surrendered a solo home run in the ninth but tossed the final three outs of the contest to record his 13th save of the season.
Florida is one win away from the College World Series after its 5-4 win against the Gamecocks. UF will return to Condron Family Ballpark at 3 p.m. Saturday for game two. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
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.