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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Florida earns super regional Game 1 victory over Clemson

The Gators stand one win away from their second-straight Men’s College World Series appearance

Florida baseball freshman right-handed pitcher Liam Peterson shows emotion after escaping a jam in the fourth inning of the team's game against Columbia University on Saturday, February 24, 2024.
Florida baseball freshman right-handed pitcher Liam Peterson shows emotion after escaping a jam in the fourth inning of the team's game against Columbia University on Saturday, February 24, 2024.

For the first time since being named head coach at Clemson 17 years ago, Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan returned to Doug Kingsmore Stadium to take on the Tigers in a three-game series. But the stakes were higher than an average non-conference matchup for Florida.

The first team to take two out of three games would earn a berth in the Men’s College World Series. For Florida, this was familiar territory. Since O’Sullivan’s arrival at UF in 2008, no college baseball program has had more trips to the MCWS or super regionals hosted.

“It’s changed an awful lot since I’ve been here 17 years ago,” O’Sullivan said. “It certainly feels good to be back.”

What may have felt even better was the game-sealing strikeout thrown by junior right-handed closer Brandon Neely who  strung together dominant performances time and time again on the Gators hopeful path to Omaha.

The Florida Gators baseball team (33-28, 13-17 SEC) took down the Clemson Tigers (44-15, 20-10 ACC) 10-7 in Game 1 of the Clemson Super Regional Saturday.

Right-handed freshman pitcher Liam Peterson has been Florida’s most effective starter over the season’s when heading into regional play. His ability to deliver quality starts in his last several outings awardedO’Sullivan the confidence to let Peterson take the bump in Game 1 of the pivotal series.

However, it was far from the start Florida was expecting to see from Peterson. After just one inning, the freshman walked four batters and allowed three hits for three runs with two of them coming off wild pitches thrown by the UF’s starter.

Clemson wasted no time bringing its packed home crowd to a roar in the bottom of the first inning as it plated the first two runs of the super regional. 

Senior right fielder Alden Mathes scored on a wild pitch with the bases loaded. Peterson then walked the next two-straight batters to allow the Tigers to take an early 2-0 edge after the first frame.

Florida’s bats were quiet in the early going. The Gators failed to plate a run in the first two innings while tallying just one hit.

Clemson sophomore pitcher Tristan Smith opened his outing sharp. The starter kept Florida scoreless  and allowed his squad to take a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the second on Peterson’s second wild pitch of the game.

With the crowd in a frenzy amid an early deficit, the Gators desperately needed to muster a productive inning offensively. 

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Sophomore second baseman Cade Kurland worked a one-out walk in the top of the third and advanced to third base on a hard hit single to right field from Florida’s two-way star Jac Caglianone. 

The Gators played a bit of small ball to plate its first run of the game following a sacrifice fly on a hard hit line drive to right field by sophomore outfielder Ashton Wilson to score Kurland from third. The play cut the Tigers’ lead to 3-1.

Just as Florida seemed to be working its way back into the game, senior catcher Jimmy Obertop blasted a solo homer to right field off of junior right-handed reliever Fisher Jameson extending Clemson’s lead to 4-1 in the bottom of the third frame.

Though, UF refused to back down, heading to the middle innings down three runs. Senior left-fielder Tyler Shelnut sent a deep solo shot over the left-center field wall. But Smith’s  in the top of the fourth paled in comparison to the Gators’ offensive explosion in the following frame.

The Tigers seemingly outplayed Florida through the first four innings. But when their  backs were against the wall, the Gators delivered.

It was a seven-run top of the fifth for UF sparked by a three-run opposite field home run off the bat of Caglianone good for his 32nd of the season. Sophomore shortstop Colby Shetlon and Wilson followed up with back-to-back walks.

“He put up a slider in there first pitch,” Caglianone said. “I knew he wasn’t going to double up. He was throwing the heater a lot this outing so I was just on time and ready for it.”

Sophomore catcher Luke Heyman stroked a single up the middle to score Wilson, and Shelton later crossed home plate on a fielder’s choice to second base off the bat of Thomas to increase Florida’s lead to 7-4.

The Gators tacked on two more runs in the top of the fifth on an RBI groundout by sophomore designated hitter Brody Donay and an opposite field single by sophomore center-fielder Michael Robertson that scored Thomas.

Florida took a 9-4 advantage into the bottom half of the fifth. Clemson responded with a solo home run from sophomore left-fielder Tristan Bisetta but to no avail. He could not further produce as Jameson forced two pop outs in the next two at bats to end the inning.

UF’s lead was far from secure as it  tried to hold off a Clemson team that claimed 25 come-from-behind victories on the season. The Tigers plated two runs in the bottom of the seventh to cut the Gators’ lead to 9-7.

Florida’s bats went quiet down the stretch leading to three-straight scoreless frames after their dominant fifth inning at the plate. But Heyman delivered a much-needed insurance run for the Gators in top of the ninth inning with a solo home run to left field offering UF just enough wiggle room with a 10-7 lead.

“It probably [went] unnoticed but the home run in the ninth by Luke was huge,” O’Sullivan said. “Any time you can extend your lead by another run… I think [it] was really big for our confidence.”

With the game on the line, junior right-handed reliever Brandon Neely was lights out. He entered midway through the bottom of the sixth and dealt four scoreless innings on one hit with seven strikeouts and secured the victory for UF in the bottom of the ninth.

“We made that run last year, and he was one of the main reasons why we got there,” O’Sullivan said. “It wasn’t ideal to bring him in in the sixth… but just like last weekend against Oklahoma State we felt like it was the turning point of the game.”

The path won’t get any easier for the Gators who will look to close out the Clemson Super Regional in upset fashion over No. 6 Clemson.

“Coach is going out there and giving us a good strategy going into the game,” Neely said. “Everyone [is] playing good together as a team and all of us are playing good baseball.”

Florida will be right back in action tomorrow to take on the Tigers in Game 2 of the Clemson Regional. First pitch is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. from Doug Kingsmore Stadium.

Contact Max Tucker 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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