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Saturday, April 13, 2024

No. 6 Florida baseball battles back, walks off No. 21 Mississippi State 7-6

Sophomore Cade Kurland delivered a clutch walk-off single to secure the win for UF

Junior Ty Evans meets his team after touching home plate after a home run in the bottom of the first inning in Game 1 of a three-game series against the Mississippi State Bulldogs Friday, March 29, 2024.
Junior Ty Evans meets his team after touching home plate after a home run in the bottom of the first inning in Game 1 of a three-game series against the Mississippi State Bulldogs Friday, March 29, 2024.

Every young baseball player grows up dreaming about the opportunity that Florida’s sophomore second baseman Cade Kurland had in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Kurland stepped up to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded as he eyed Mississippi State freshman pitcher Nolan Stevens down with a chance to deliver a walk-off hit for the Gators.

Down to his last strike, Kurland roped a line drive single up the middle to score senior left fielder Tyler Shelnut from third base to complete a four-run, come-from-behind victory over the Bulldogs.

No. 6 Florida (15-10, 5-2 SEC) stormed back to defeat No. 21 Mississippi State (18-9, 3-4 SEC) 7-6, Friday, in Game 1 of a three-game set at Condron Ballpark.“So important,” Kurland said about the win. “You know, especially in the SEC with Friday night. The last thing you want to do is go down with a loss to start the weekend, especially after what happened on Tuesday night.”

Midweek games have been a weakness for the Gators this season. However, weekend series have been kind to a Florida team that came into Friday’s matchup seeking their third-straight series victory to open SEC play.

UF head coach Kevin O’Sullivan decided to shake up his starting pitching rotation ahead of Game 1 against the Bulldogs. Sophomore pitcher Cade Fisher was named the Friday night starter before the season began but has underperformed en route to an ERA over eight in his six appearances this season.

Fisher’s shaky start sparked O’Sullivan to give junior right-handed pitcher Brandon Neely his first start of the 2024 campaign.

“He’s been in the bullpen all year,” senior catcher Tanner Garrison said. “So you know, you have to make some adjustments to get used to it but I thought his stuff looked maybe the best it has looked all year.”

Neely looked poised for the moment in the opening innings. The junior retired the first three MSU hitters and fist-pumped his way back to the UF dugout.

“First couple of innings, Brandon was really, really sharp,” O’Sullivan said. “I mean without that performance, we don’t win the ballgame, and he was just really good, man.” 

The junior kept the Bulldogs scoreless in the first two frames with two three strikeouts while allowing just two hits.

The Florida offense took advantage of Neely’s strong start. Junior right fielder Ty Evans has been having a sensational season with a batting average just under .400 entering Friday and continued to stay hot in the first inning with an opposite-field solo home run to give the Gators a 1-0 advantage.

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Though, just as UF’s starting pitcher seemed to be settling into a groove, Mississippi State began to gain momentum in the fourth inning. Neely lost command of his location as he hit junior Aaron Downs and Amani Larry with pitches that were nowhere near the strike zone.

With Mississippi State earning a 3-1 edge, O’Sullivan went to Fisher in relief of Neely midway through the fourth inning. However, coming into a close game with the bases loaded is no easy task for a reliever and it was one that Fisher was unable to overcome.

The sophomore southpaw gave up a sacrifice fly to center field. Later, a walk plated another run to extend the Bulldogs lead to 5-2 as the Gators found themselves in a serious hole.

As Florida sought to inch its way back into the game, its bats weren’t just quiet, but nearly silent. UF recorded just two hits after the Evans home run and senior catcher Tanner Garrison delivered both of them.

On a night where none of Florida’s bats at the top of the order generated much production, it was Garrison who led the way offensively after bringing a sub-.200 batting average into the game. 

Garrison tallied two of the Gators’ three hits through seven innings but was unable to single-handedly carry the offensive load.

The Coastal Carolina transfer launched his first home run in a Florida uniform in the third inning but the lack of production from the top of the lineup was a surprise to Florida fans who began to seem impatient with the cold bats up and down UF’s batting order.

“I saw the guy's fastball really well,” Garrison said. “First few times he threw it so I was gearing up for it, I got it, and it was a great feeling.”

The Gators’ bullpen has been an issue this season while allowing opposing teams to rack up runs deep into ball games. However, they stepped up  Friday when O’Sullivan needed them the most.

Florida’s relievers in Fisher, freshman Fisher Jameson, junior Blake Purnell and freshman Luke McNeillie dealt a combined 5 2/3 innings, allowing just one earned run on three hits while striking out nine. 

Although the Gators watched their deficit grow to 6-2 in the top of the seventh inning, it was the bullpen that kept the score from getting out of reach.

UF was down to its final six outs and desperately needed to muster a late-inning comeback.

Sophomore Colby Shelton and Evans led off the bottom of the eighth with back-to-back walks to give Florida its first real chance of fighting back into the game. 

Kurland came up with his first of two clutch hits in the matchup with a double down the left field line that scored Evans and cut the Bulldogs’ lead to 6-4 heading to the ninth inning.

With the crowd at Condron on its feet, the momentum seemed to be swinging in Florida’s direction. Shelnut had the opportunity to seal the victory as the senior was one swing away from ending the game with the bases loaded while trailing by one run.

Though, Shelnut worked a walk to tie the game, setting up Kurland to be the hero for UF.

“Once you get in the box really it’s just you versus a pitcher,” Kurland said. “Everything else has to go out the window.”

Florida will be back in action  Saturday in Game 2 against Mississippi State. First pitch will be at 6:30 p.m. at Condron Ballpark.

Contact Max at mtucker@alligator.org. Follow him on X @Max_Tuckr1.

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Max Tucker

Max Tucker is a junior transfer student at UF. After obtaining his A.A. in Journalism from Santa Fe College in 2023, he chose further his education at Florida's College of Journalism and Communications. Max is currently pursuing his Bachelor of Science in Journalism with a specialization in sports and media. He enjoys golfing and going to the beach with his friends in his free time. Max will be covering the Gators Golf teams this Fall for The Alligator.


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