GatorZone.com Senior Writer
OMAHA, Neb. – The odds were stacked against them.
The Gators were down three runs, Texas ace Taylor Jungmann was coming at them with his nasty assortment of pitches, and the feeling in the dugout wasn’t exactly one of hope and happiness.
“You know, didn't have a really good feeling at that point, to be honest with you, facing the first-rounder and the guy’s had a ton of success,’’ Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said.
The start of the Gators’ business trip to the College World Series felt awfully familiar considering what happened when they arrived in Omaha a year ago.
UCLA and Florida State said hello and goodbye to the Gators, and the next thing they knew they were back in Gainesville wondering if it all was just a bad dream.
That was last year.
On Saturday night at a sold-out TD Ameritrade Park, the Gators didn’t go away quietly. They scrapped together a pair of runs in the third and two more in the fourth, the go-ahead run coming home on Cody Dent’s first double of the season.
Florida won a game in Omaha for the first time since 2005 with a come-from-behind 8-4 win over the Longhorns. They did what they wanted to do – get off to a good start at the CWS -- after a shaky one early.
Jungmann, selected 12th overall in the MLB first-year player draft, actually looked human in his head-to-head matchup with Gators starter Hudson Randall.
It was Randall who stole the spotlight by staying composed when it looked like he might be in for a repeat of his CWS experience from a year ago. Randall arrived in Omaha as a freshman with a six-game winning streak but left with a loss to FSU and an empty feeling.
The lanky redhead from the Atlanta area left TD Ameritrade Park late Saturday night with a big grin on his face after a couple of errors early in the game put him in a 3-0 hole. Instead of folding, Randall bounced back to retire 13 consecutive Longhorns at one point before turning the game over to relievers Greg Larson and Nick Maronde.
Randall’s final line: 6.2 innings, five hits, four runs, one earned, and five strikeouts. Jungmann’s final line: 4.1 innings, three hits, five runs, four earned, four walks, three strikeouts, two wild pitches and a hit batter.
Sometimes less really is more.
“He fell behind early but he was still making quality pitches,’’ Gators catcher Mike Zunino said. “There were just a couple of errors on us. He kept his composure really well and was able to go deep into the ballgame.’’
If the Gators’ normally reliable defense had played like itself behind him – Florida entered the game with just one error in six NCAA Tournament games – Randall would have been on cruise control for most of the game.
But the Longhorns scored three times in the third, a rally created when Jacob Felts reached on an error by Gators shortstop Nolan Fontana to lead off the inning and moved to second on a sacrifice by Jordan Etier. However, a throwing error on Gators first baseman Preston Tucker allowed Etier to reach safely and both Felts and Etier later came around to score.
Randall survived the inning, and starting with a sacrifice fly by Erich Weiss to score Texas’ final run of the third, he retired 13 in a row until Felts singled with two outs in the seventh.
The Gators led 5-3 by then and while the Longhorns trimmed the lead to 5-4, Brian Johnson added insurance runs with his two-run double in the seventh that had the Florida dugout excited and confused all at once. (Click here to read more about Johnson’s two-run double in the seventh).
As the Gators prepared to hop back onto the team bus for a short ride back to the hotel, they were in a much better mood than their last game in Omaha.
Randall’s outing set the mood.
Was outfielder Bryson Smith concerned about the early deficit?
“Not at all with Hudson Randall on the mound,’’ Smith said. “He’s a competitor. We know what we’re going to get from him.’’
What they got was a gutsy performance in the most important of Randall’s 18 starts this season. The Gators talked all week about the importance of winning their first CWS game to get off to a good start here and Randall didn’t disappoint.
Zunino wasn’t overly concerned regardless of how it may have looked from the stands or in the press box early in the game.
“He was throwing his curveball and his slider really well,’’ Zunino said. “His change-up to lefties was really good. I know he had a little bitter taste in his mouth from last year. He had something to prove and he went out there and did that.’’
For his part, Randall said he mostly waited. He certainly didn’t want to get in the early hole, but when he did, he just kept making his pitches and waited on Florida’s big bats to wake up.
Once they did, he took over.
“My confidence grew and I was able to just attack the hitters more,’’ Randall said. “I wasn't trying to pitch to the corners too much. I knew we could score at any time. I was just trying to make quick innings out of there, go one, two, three, [and] get us back into the dugout to score more runs.’’
The plan worked. The Gators are off to the kind of start they wanted in Omaha. They next face SEC rival Vanderbilt on Monday night in a game with ample story lines, including O’Sullivan going against one of his best friends in the game – Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin – on the game’s biggest stage.
When the Gators returned to their hotel after Friday night’s opening ceremonies, they held a team meeting and talked about what to expect Saturday, what they wanted to accomplish.
“We obviously wanted to come here and enjoy ourselves, but after the opening ceremony, we just sort of said we enjoyed that and we really want to celebrate that last game of the season,’’ Zunino said.
The Gators are off to the good start they coveted. They can thank Randall. He was the best ace in the house on Saturday night.