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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Florida punches ticket to Men’s College World Series in thrilling walk-off fashion

Sophomore center fielder Michael Robertson sent the Gators to Omaha on a walk-off hit in the 13th inning

Florida baseball left fielder Tyler Shelnut swings the bat in the team's loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks on Friday, April 12, 2024.
Florida baseball left fielder Tyler Shelnut swings the bat in the team's loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks on Friday, April 12, 2024.

Roughly two weeks ago, the Florida baseball team was fighting for its life to even become eligible for the NCAA Tournament. 

But the Gators scratched and clawed their way into a super regional and took the field Sunday with the chance to punch their ticket to a ninth Men’s College World Series in the head coach Kevin O’Sullivan era.

UF’s run through the postseason has been nothing short of improbable. The Gators have shown incredible perseverance in tightly contested games and sophomore center fielder Michael Robertson was a prime example in the bottom of thirteenth inning.

With the bases loaded, Robertson sent the Gators to Omaha on a walk-off base hit to left field plating the game winning run.

Florida (35-28, 13-17 SEC) is Omaha bound after a thrilling 11-10 walk-off victory over Clemson (44-16, 20-10 ACC) at Doug Kingsmore Stadium Sunday.

“I was just looking for something in the zone,” Robertson said. “I was able to put a good swing on it, and I thought I got enough barrel through to find the gap but obviously none of that happens without the guys in front of me.”

It was another packed crowd at Doug Kingsmore stadium, and Clemson fans were brought to their feet for the first time of the game when senior third baseman Blake Wright sent a double to the left field wall.

Junior left-handed pitcher Jac Caglianone is no stranger to taking the bump for his squad in big-time games, and Game 2 of the super regional was his opportunity to do exactly that.

The southpaw allowed a two-out double to the left field wall in the first inning, but he kept his composure forcing a ground out to end the top half of the frame.

The two-way star has been sensational at the plate this season, and he wasted no time putting his offensive talents on display. 

Sophomore second baseman Cade Kurland was hit by a pitch in his leadoff spot to set the stage for Caglianone to crush a two-run home run to center field and award the Gators an early 2-0 lead.

Florida seemingly held momentum heading into the top of the second inning before the game came to an unexpected halt following a scuffle between Tigers freshman designated hitter Nolan Nawrocki and Caglianone.

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Following a slow dribbler to the right side, a hard tag was put on Nawrocki by Caglianone and led to both players getting in each other's faces. Clemson’s bench completely cleared as the two players were separated by the umpires, and the call was reviewed to see who should be ejected.

After a lengthy review, Tigers sophomore first baseman Jack Crighton was tossed for making contact with an umpire who was trying to break up the heated altercation. Following the exchange, Clemson’s home crowd became even more engaged with every pitch.

Clemson held the Gators scoreless in the bottom half of the second inning setting up an offensive explosion for the Tigers in the top of the third. Freshman second baseman Jarren Purify worked a leadoff walk and scored on an RBI-double by senior right fielder Aiden Mathes.

The Tigers took their first lead of the game and sent the stadium into a frenzy in the very next at bat. Senior third baseman Blake Wright took Caglianone deep to center field for a solo homer that snuck just over the wall.

However, just as they’ve done time and time again with their backs against the wall throughout their postseason run, the Gators fought back. 

Kurland delivered a leadoff single to right field and reached scoring position on a wild pitch thrown by Clemson’s freshman starter Aidan Knaack.

Despite his 0-4 Game 1 performance, Florida sophomore shortstop Colby Shelton bounced back in Game 2. He stepped up in a clutch moment in the bottom of the third with an RBI-single to right-center field to score Kurland from second while tying the score 3-apiece.

“We’ve had our ups and downs, but hats off to everyone on our team and the coaching staff,” Shelton said. “They stuck with us and all we did was keep battling, keep battling. We’ve had our backs up against the wall the whole year, and I think it shows how tough a team we are and how resilient we are.”

Caglianone settled in on the mound in the fourth and fifth innings posting back to back zero-run frames to keep Clemson’s offense in check.

Shelton had another opportunity to do damage at the plate in the bottom of the fifth with the bases loaded with one out. The sophomore stepped to the dish and delivered another timely hit to drive in his third run of the game allowing Florida to gain a 5-3 lead.

The Tigers saw their chance at a berth in the MCWS slowly slipping away and desperately needed to build some offensive momentum. Clemson senior catcher Jimmy Obertop was up for the task as he sent a much-needed solo home run to left field to cut Florida’s lead to 5-4 in the top of the sixth.

A huge part of being able to make a deep run in postseason play is getting timely contributions in key moments of games. This narrative held true for UF’s sophomore catcher Brody Donay who struggled at the plate lately, bringing a .253 batting average into Sunday’s matchup.

In the biggest game of the season, the Virginia Tech transfer sent a clutch two-run homer to right-center field plating two crucial insurance runs for the Gators heading to the final three frames.

Gators freshman right-handed pitcher Jake Clemente left the bullpen midway through the sixth and put together a solid performance striking out the side in the top of the seventh inning.

O’Sullivan rolled Clemente out for the bottom half of the eighth, but the freshman worked his way into trouble allowing an RBI-single to center off the bat of sophomore center fielder Cam Cannarella.

Despite dealing four scoreless innings to close out Game 1 of the super regional, right-handed pitcher Brandon Neely’s name was called to leave the bullpen six outs away from a berth in the MCWS.

“Honestly the last month of the year we’ve been playing pretty much playoff baseball every game,” O’Sullivan said. “I think us going through those struggles and having every game matter the last two or three weeks of the year probably helped toughen us up a little bit.”

Neely was faced with adversity in the top of the eighth after allowing two RBI-singles as the Tigers trailed by just one with one out. But Neely kept composure to retire the next two Clemson batters on pop-outs.

“[Neely’s] gonna fight tooth and nail and you’re gonna have to pull the ball out of his hands,” O’Sullivan said “We certainly wouldn’t be here without him.”

The Gators were in desperate search of insurance runs in the bottom half of the frame to give themselves some leeway on the scoreboard heading to the ninth. In just his eleventh start of the season, sophomore Ashton Wilson crushed a two-run homer to left-center field to extend UF’s lead to 9-6.

Clemson was down to its final three outs of the season and was potentially set to see a trip to Omaha slip away. But even then the Tigers showed no signs of quit in the top of the ninth.

With runners on first and second, Cannarella stroked a three-run game tying home run to right field to keep the Tigers season alive forcing the game into extra innings.

“Between last weekend and what he was able to do yesterday and today I know he [Neely] was disappointed in himself tonight, but Clemson earned it,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s just starting to find his niche again and to all fairness to him he started the season as our closer and then we struggled a little bit.”

Florida had a chance to end it in the bottom of the tenth with runners on first and second with Wilson coming to the plate.

The Charleston Southern transfer hit a deep drive to the wall in center field, but Cannarella made a remarkable over-the-shoulder catch to keep his team’s Omaha hopes alive while sending the game to the eleventh frame.

Clemson took a 10-9 lead on a solo home run by Alden Mathes in the top of the twelfth inning but it wasn’t enough to overcome the heroic bottom half of the frame Florida had in store.

“I’m proud of my players,” O’Sullivan said. “The atmosphere this weekend was incredible… We’re fortunate to move on.”

Next, Florida will be in action at the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. Date and time are to be announced.

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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