No words could properly describe the resiliency of Florida’s baseball team. The Gators have come back from deficits in the final innings of the game multiple times throughout the 2023 season, and Friday, they did exactly that.
The Florida Gators (51-15, 20-10 SEC) emerged victorious against the Virginia Cavaliers (50-14, 19-11 ACC) 6-5 and moved on to the winner’s bracket in Omaha, Nebraska.
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Florida was down 5-3 in the bottom of the ninth after sophomore All-SEC closer Brandon Neely surrendered a triple and what seemed like the finishing blow from Virginia freshman outfielder Harrison Didawick in the top half of the inning.
Sophomore outfielder Ty Evans led off the ninth with a solo home run to left field, and junior outfielder Wyatt Langford tied the ballgame with a 456 foot drive that ventured out upon the left field concourse.
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“He’s one of the best players we’ve ever had,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “He’s got a knack for rising to the occasion.”
With the game on the line, freshman Luke Heyman brought home the win on a sacrifice fly.
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“We’ve proved it many times throughout the year,” Langford said. “We’re never out of a baseball game.”
Two of college baseball’s best offenses combined for one total run entering the seventh inning of Saturday’s contest.
Florida junior right-handed pitcher Brandon Sproat strung together his fourth quality start in the NCAA tournament, and Virginia graduate pitcher Nick Parker cruised through the Gators’ lineup.
Sproat was tasked with facing a potent offense led by USA Baseball Golden Spikes award nominees Jake Gelof and Kyle Teel. Virginia averages an NCAA-best nine runs per game but was unable to find its footing until late.
Sproat surrendered a leadoff single on the first pitch of the game to sophomore infielder Griff O’Ferrall. He fired back with a punchout and pop-out, and UF senior catcher BT Riopelle finished off the inning and caught O’Ferrall during his pursuit to third after the righty surrendered a walk to Teel.
Florida’s ace settled into a groove after the first and entered the seventh frame with six strikeouts and only two hits surrendered on the day. He looked calm behind a slim, one-run lead collected in the second inning.
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The Gators broke onto the scoreboard with a clutch at-bat by junior third baseman Colby Halter.
O’Sullivan made sure to give kudos to Halter postgame when asked about his lineup’s ability to come up big in important moments.
“You have to have special performances from people you don’t expect,” he said. “I don’t want to forget about [Halter].”
Halter pivoted to a bench role after going 1-17 at the plate during the month of May. The third baseman shifted tides once the calendar turned to June.
He hit 6-17 throughout the NCAA tournament before Friday and has been the spark plug for a bottom of the order that hit .133 in the games preceding the Regional opener against Florida A&M.
Halter stepped up to the plate after nearly an identical sequence of events that occurred in the second inning in game two of the Super Regional round against South Carolina.
Riopelle began the inning with a full-count leadoff walk, and freshman designated hitter Luke Heyman followed with a single. Both runners advanced an additional base with a groundout by junior outfielder Tyler Shelnut, setting the stage for Halter to deliver the final blow.
He drove a pitch to left center field and Riopelle scored from third with ease.
Florida went up 1-0, but its lead disappeared when UVA first baseman Ethan Anderson earned a leadoff walk in the top of the seventh inning.
Anderson advanced to third with a single and motored home on a bobbled groundout collected by Halter at third.
Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan made a call to the bullpen and brought out freshman reliever Cade Fisher. The lefty’s efforts only seemed to worsen the damage.
Fisher surrendered three runs and O’Sullivan quickly turned to sophomore All-SEC reliever Brandon Neely, who recorded the final out of the inning.
Florida slowly chipped away at the Cavaliers’ lead the next few innings. Freshman second baseman Cade Kurland hit an RBI groundout in the seventh, and Riopelle delivered his seventh home run of the NCAA tournament and brought the score within one.
UF finally pushed over the hump in the ninth and tallied four runs to deliver the walk-off victory.
The Gators’ chase for the title resumes against the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles in the winner’s bracket 7 p.m. Sunday. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.
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Luke Adragna is a UF journalism junior and The Alligator’s baseball beat reporter for the summer. In his free time, he obsesses over his son (cat) named Pete, buys way too many legos and completes the NYT’s daily mini in fewer than 60 seconds.