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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Florida suffers early exit in SEC Tournament following loss to Vanderbilt

The Gators will find out their possible regional location Monday

Florida baseball first baseman Jac Caglianone celebrates a home run in the team's loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks on Friday, April 12, 2024.
Florida baseball first baseman Jac Caglianone celebrates a home run in the team's loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks on Friday, April 12, 2024.

The Florida Gators baseball team arrived at the 2024 Southeastern Conference Tournament hoping to catch fire at the perfect time as NCAA Regionals loomed near. 

UF earned the No. 9-seed in the tournament and was matched up against No. 8-seed Vanderbilt.  The Commodores ended their regular season and SEC slate on a shaky 3-9 stretch.

Sophomore center fielder Michael Robertson did his best to muster a late Florida comeback with a two-run home run in the top of the ninth inning, but it wasn’t enough for the Gators to overcome the lofty deficit they faced.

Florida (28-27, 13-18 SEC) fell early in the SEC Tournament after a loss to Vanderbilt (36-20, 14-17 SEC) 6-3 at Hoover Metropolitan Park in Hoover, Alabama, Tuesday.

“Ultimately, we just got beat, simple as that,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “The inability to make some two-strike two-out pitches with runners in scoring position cost us a couple runs, and then we gave up a third one with two outs.”

Following the Gators' series victory against Georgia to close out their SEC schedule, Florida became eligible for an NCAA Regional bid after finishing with an above .500 record. Though, securing a first or second-round win in the SEC Tournament could help UF’s postseason-seeding.

Vanderbilt junior right-handed starting pitcher Bryce Cunninham has been the Commodores’  top option on the bump this season. He was lights out against the Gators despite Vanderbilt’s pitching rotation uncharacteristically finishing its season with a 5.08 ERA to rank eighth in the SEC.

However, Cunningham entered the matchup allowing a team-best .216 batting average in just over 73 innings pitched. His performance illustrated exactly why he has been the Friday-night ace for Vanderbilt in 2024.

Cunningham shoved for 50 strikes on 77 pitches through six innings of scoreless work, allowing five hits and zero earned runs while striking out six Gator batters.

“He was in the zone with all of his pitches,” Robertson said. “We didn’t do our job as a whole as hitters, and so we just didn’t compete how we would have liked to. We didn’t compete in a way that would allow us to have a whole bunch of success.”

Florida was hot at the plate in its regular-season finale Sunday, after plating 19 runs in a victory over then No. 9 Georgia. But the Gators failed to carry over much of the same theme against the Commodores.

UF started the top of the second frame with back-to-back base hits from sophomore catcher Luke Heyman and sophomore second baseman Cade Kurland.

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As Florida was on the verge of striking first on the scoreboard, Cunningham retired the next three Gators as the squads stood knotted 0-0 midway through the second inning.

“We just had a hard time manufacturing runs,” O’Sullivan said. “I don’t know how many guys we left on base but we had the opportunity there with two runners on with nobody out but unfortunately we had two at bats there where we struck out back-to-back.”

Vanderbilt capitalized on Cunningham’s strong outing in the bottom of the second while playing a bit of small-ball. 

Junior utility player Matthew Polk grounded out on a fielder’s choice to second base to score senior catcher Alan Espinal from third and freshman infielder Braden Holcomb sent a RBI sacrifice fly to right field in the following at bat to extend the Commodore’s lead to 2-0.

For the second-straight inning, Florida again left two runners on base without plating a run as Caglinanone and sophomore shortstop Colby Shelton were left stranded.

“We didn’t adjust to what he [Cunnigham] was doing,” Kurland said. “We failed to execute.”

The Commodores added to their lead in the bottom of the fourth inning when Polk poked a RBI single to left field and later scored on a Holcomb single to left field andextend Vanderbilt’s lead to 4-0.

It’s been an inconsistent season at the dish for Florida. The Gators had just one player entering Tuesday’s game with an above .300 batting average, junior two-way star Jac Caglianone.

UF carried much of the same inconsistent theme through the middle frames of the matchup. The Gators strung together just two hits during the fourth, fifth and sixth innings largely in part to Cunningham’s dominant performance. 

The Gators have also recently fallen victim to the injury bug following the loss of junior outfielder Ty Evans and freshman outfielder Hayden Yost who both have been crucial pieces throughout UF’s late-season regional run.

Vanderbilt added an insurance run in the bottom of the fifth after a solo home run to left field from senior outfielder Calvin Hewett as the Commodores broke out to a 5-0 lead.

It took Florida until the eighth inning to score its first run of the game coming off a fielder’s choice to second base by Shelton to score Caglianone from third.

Down to their final three outs, it was a do-or-die top of the ninth for the Gators. Sophomore center fielder Michael Robertson refused to let his team go down without a fight. He sent a two-run home run to right field, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Commodores stable lead.

Next, Florida will be forced to await its hopeful NCAA Tournament Regional seeding. The NCAA Field of 64 bracket will be released Monday following the conclusion of conference tournaments.

Contact Max Tucker at 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.

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