GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Chatter about Omaha was in the air at McKethan Stadium on Saturday afternoon as Mississippi State prepared to come to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning.
The Gators were three outs away from doing something they have never done in the program’s 97-year history: make back-to-back trips to the College World Series. In the open-air press box, you could hear fans below talking about their potential travel plans.
The ESPN broadcast team and Gator radio announcers Mick Hubert and Jeff Cardozo set the stage for their listeners with their Omaha references.
In the middle of all the anticipation, Mississippi State’s Nick Vickerson waited on-deck as teammate Jarrod Parks led off the inning. Parks singled against Florida reliever Nick Maronde, prompting a pitching change.
Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan summoned left-hander Steven Rodriguez from the pen to face Vickerson, a senior second baseman from Tuscaloosa with an accent to match. In a matter of seconds, Rodriguez threw his first pitch, Vickerson took a hearty cut, and the game was over when the ball landed beyond the left-field wall.
The Bulldogs lived another day with a dramatic 4-3 walk-off win – in Florida’s home ballpark no less -- on Vickerson’s two-run homer, setting the stage for a tense Sunday afternoon when the teams meet in Game 3 of the Gainesville Super Regional.
“We felt like we played a really good game,’’ O’Sullivan said afterward. “It stings a little bit. We have to bounce back. It’s as simple as that.’’
In the other dugout, emotions soared 180 degrees the other direction.
“They didn’t give us anything,’’ said Bulldogs coach John Cohen, a former Gators assistant. “We had to go out and get it.’’
The Bulldogs did, and now one of these teams can for sure make travel plans to Omaha sometime late Sunday afternoon.
The Gators, after a pre-game pep talk from Florida men’s basketball coach Billy Donovan to get them fired up, appeared on their way most of Saturday thanks to a strong outing from starter Karsten Whitson.
Whitson was superb in his first career super regional start, retiring 13 consecutive Bulldogs during one stretch, using what O’Sullivan called the best slider he has seen all season from the freshman.
Still, Mississippi State never went away, chasing Whitson and tying the game 2-2 with a pair of runs in the seventh. The Gators quickly regained the lead the next inning on a double from Mike Zunino and Tyler Thompson’s RBI triple.
All that was left was for the Gators’ stacked bullpen to close the door on what would be UF’s 10th consecutive NCAA Tournament win at home dating back to a loss to Southern Miss in 2009.
Tommy Toledo pitched out of a jam in the seventh, and then gave way to Maronde in the eighth. Maronde retired two in a row before Parks’ single led off the ninth.
That’s when Rodriguez didn’t even have time to break a sweat and the game was over.
“It’s not fun,’’ Whitson said. “You hate to lose such a big game like, but I’m confident in our team that we’re going to come out ready to play [Sunday].’’
The loss was the first for the No. 1-ranked Gators since a 4-3 defeat to Georgia on May 28 in the SEC Tournament. They bounced back that same day with a 3-2 win over the Bulldogs and then beat Vanderbilt behind a strong outing from starter Alex Panteliodis to win their first SEC Tournament title in 20 years.
Florida breezed through the Gainesville Regional with a win over Manhattan and two against Miami, and opened the best-of-three series against Mississippi State on Friday with an 11-1 win.
Prior to Vickerson’s swing, the road to Omaha seemed covered with red carpet for the Gators.
In the immediate aftermath, the Gators showed no signs of panic. More like a steely resolve. They have faced other hurdles – including the loss of Brian Johnson and Austin Maddox to injuries this postseason – but have responded with win after win until Saturday.
“That’s the thing that is going to make this unique,’’ O’Sullivan said. “If we want to get to where we want to get to – we want to win a national championship – it’s not going to be easy. We’re going to have to go through this, we’re going to have to recover from it, and we’ll give it our best shot.’’
Neither O’Sullivan nor Cohen revealed their pitching plans for Sunday’s game, both saying they needed more time to evaluate. Panteliodis seems a good bet for the Gators considering his wins to clinch both the SEC Tournament and Gainesville Regional titles.
He could make it a triple crown with a win Sunday.
Following his first walk-off homer since he played for Post 34 in Tuscaloosa as a teenager, Vickerson threw away any notions the Bulldogs have an emotional edge in Game 3.
“I wouldn’t say that,’’ Vickerson said.
O’Sullivan downplayed the impact of losing in such heartbreak fashion much like he hushed talk after Friday’s rout that the Gators could go ahead and make plans for Omaha.
The season has all come down to one game. If the Gators win, they are Omaha-bound and will have done something no other UF team in history can say. If they lose, Vickerson’s swing is one that will live in infamy around McKethan Stadium for years to come.
The Gators sound ready for whatever Game 3 tosses their way.
“This team doesn’t take losing lightly,’’ senior second baseman Josh Adams said. “I know we’re going to come out [Sunday] ready to play. We want to be here.’’
They are here. And they know where they want to go and what they have to do to get there.
“I’ve known a lot of these players for two, three, four years now obviously,’’ O’Sullivan said. “I know what’s inside them. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy.’’
It never is this time of year.