Sophomore Brian Johnson (Cocoa Beach, Fla.) belted a grand slam in the seventh inning to turn a 5-2 deficit into an eventual 7-5 victory for third-seeded Florida (42-15) over sixth-seeded Mississippi State (34-22) on the opening day of the 2011 SEC Tournament on Wednesday afternoon at Regions Park.
With their first win in the initial round of the event since 2005, the Gators will now meet seventh-seeded Alabama (33-24) at 5:30 p.m. ET on Thursday in a winner’s bracket game. The contest will be carried on Sun Sports, Channels 48/748 on the Cox Communications’ Cable System in Gainesville and Ocala and on WRUF SportsRadio 850. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs will meet second-seeded Arkansas (36-19) at 10:30 a.m. ET in the first elimination game of the five-day tournament.
With the Gators trailing by a 5-2 score entering the bottom of the seventh, senior Bryson Smith (Watkinsville, Ga.) was hit by a pitch and junior Preston Tucker (Tampa, Fla.) (2-for-4, two RBI) drew a walk from freshman Taylor Stark to cause a pitching change. Sophomore Luis Pollorena (6-5) came in for Stark (1.0 IP, 2 BB) and surrendered a single into center field to sophomore Mike Zunino (Cape Coral, Fla.) (2-for-5) that loaded the bases with none out. Johnson sent a fly ball into right field that appeared to be headed foul but instead cleared the right-field wall in fair territory to empty the bases and give Florida 6-5 lead. It was Johnson’s fifth homer of the campaign, his third career grand slam and the sixth grand slam for the Orange and Blue this season.
On the Johnson homer: “I was hoping it wasn’t foul,” head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “I knew the wind was blowing strong, and once the ball stayed in the air, I knew it had a chance.”
"It's important for us to play well in this tournament. I didn't feel like we play well through the first six innings, but I thought that had a lot to do with their pitcher (Evan Mitchell). He threw well."
Florida tacked on an insurance run in the eighth on a two-out RBI single by Tucker. Sophomore Cody Dent (Boynton Beach, Fla.) (1-for-2, two walks) had drawn a leadoff walk, was sacrificed to second by sophomore Nolan Fontana (Winter Garden, Fla.) and went to third on a fly-out by Smith. Tucker delivered a base-knock into left field to bring home Dent and put the Gators ahead by two runs but was later thrown out at the plate attempting to score on a single into left field by Zunino.
After sophomore Steven Rodriguez (Miami, Fla.) (3-1) pitched 1.2 scoreless and hitless innings, sophomore Austin Maddox (Jacksonville, Fla.) took the mound in the ninth and set down the first two Bulldogs on fly balls. Senior Cody Freeman kept the game alive with a single into right center and Maddox responded by catching redshirt senior Jarrod Parks looking on strikes to close the contest and register his team-leading fourth save.
Back in the first inning, junior Tommy Toledo (Tampa, Fla.) walked freshman C.T. Bradford (2-for-4, two runs) to start the game and then struck out Freeman as Bradford stole second base. After issuing a walk to Parks, Toledo fanned both senior Jaron Shepherd and senior Nick Vickerson to escape the jam.
The Gators seized a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the stanza on an RBI double by Tucker. Fontana opened with a free pass from freshman Evan Mitchell and came all the way around to score on Tucker’s 17th two-bagger into center field. Although Zunino reached on a fielding error by Mitchell for runners on the corners, Johnson grounded into an inning-ending 6-3 double play.
Vickerson (2-for-4, three RBI) delivered a two-out, two-run triple in the third to move the Bulldogs in front, 2-1. Bradford began the inning with MSU’s first hit, a single through the left side of the infield, and was sacrificed to second on a bunt by Freeman. Toledo plunked Parks for a pair of runners aboard and struck out Shepherd for the second time for two down. Vickerson sent a fly ball to straightaway center field that resulted in both runners coming across to give MSU the lead and prompt a pitching change. Junior Nick Maronde (Lexington, Ky.) relieved Toledo (2.2 IP, 2 H, 2 R, season-high 6 K, 2 BB) and had senior Ryan Collins fly out.
Fontana drew a bases-loaded walk, his third free pass of the game, with two down in the fourth to knot the game at 2-2. Senior Josh Adams (Jacksonville, Fla.) (2-for-4) had a one-out single and moved into scoring position on a grounder by Maddox. After junior Tyler Thompson (Tequesta, Fla.) walked, Dent sliced a base-hit into left field that loaded the bases. Mitchell walked Fontana, bringing across Adams, and had a fielder’s choice by Smith force Fontana at second to end the inning and strand the runners.
Vickerson led off the sixth with his seventh homer of the campaign, a shot to left field that gave Mississippi State a 3-2 advantage. Maronde retired the next two batters before junior Greg Larson (Longwood, Fla.) took over on the mound. Over three innings, Maronde gave up two hits and a run and totaled three strikeouts. Larson caught senior Jonathan Ogden looking on strikes to close the frame.
Adams collected his second hit of the contest with a single into right field to begin the home part of the sixth. Stark was summoned from the bullpen to replace Mitchell (5.0 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 4 BB, 5 K) and had a grounder by Maddox erase Adams at second base. A grounder by Thompson advanced Maddox to second and Dent walked for a couple of Gators aboard with two down. However, Stark had Fontana ground out to keep MSU ahead by a run.
Senior Wes Thigpen and Bradford had consecutive singles to start the seventh and Larson had Freeman pop up a bunt for the first out. After hitting Park to load the bags, Larson (0.2 IP, 2 H) was replaced by Rodriguez, who induced a ground ball from Shepherd that brought across Thigpen for a 4-2 lead. With runners on the corners and two down, Rodriguez uncorked a wild pitch that scored Parks and left Shepherd on third base. The lefty struck out Vickerson to set the stage for Johnson’s heroics in the bottom of the frame.
The Gators held a 9-7 advantage in hits and did not commit any errors in the game. UF has now taken three of the four encounters with Mississippi State this year.
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· Florida now leads the series between the teams at the SEC Tournament, 7-6.
· Before today, the Gators had dropped four-straight opening-round contests and had been 0-3 in SEC Tourney openers under Kevin O’Sullivan.
· Tommy Toledo started the Gators’ second-straight game in Hoover, as he went 3.2 innings and took the loss against Alabama on May 29, 2010 (7 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 1 BB, 3 K).
· The right-hander made his third start of the season this afternoon (at UCF on April 20 & vs. Florida State on March 1).
· Nolan Fontana’s career-high 10-game hitting streak ended with a 0-for-1 performance but he drew three walks to match his season high.
· Mike Zunino had his team-leading 23rd multiple-hit game, while Preston Tucker (21) and Josh Adams (20) chipped in with a pair of hits apiece.
· Brian Johnson drove in four runs for the second-straight game.
· The Gators are now 5-5 in two-run games this season.