GatorZone.com Senior Writer
OMAHA, Neb. – A few in the Florida contingent here for the College World Series joked a couple of days ago that if Gators closer Austin Maddox made it back to the mound before the season ended, he should hobble from the bullpen in the protective boot he has worn on his left foot for the past three weeks.
Once he reached the mound, Maddox could toss it aside in what would certainly make a memorable entrance.
Maddox’s return didn’t exactly go down that way on Friday, but it was memorable nonetheless. The final of Maddox’s 26 pitches landed in left fielder Tyler Thompson’s glove. As soon as Thompson squeezed the high fly ball off the bat of Vanderbilt’s Curt Casali, the Gators took another step toward their ultimate goal.
Not only did the Gators survive another nip-and-tuck game against Vanderbilt, winning 6-4, they advanced to the CWS championship series. The Gators will play for the national championship starting Monday against defending national champion South Carolina. The Gamecocks advanced by beating Virginia, 3-2, in 13 innings.
Who had Maddox on the mound for the final out Friday? I can’t say I did.
Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said prior to the Gators’ departure from Gainesville that Maddox was available if needed. Still, while his teammates beat Texas and Vanderbilt in Florida’s first two games at the CWS, other than for throwing in the bullpen, Maddox had not stepped onto the field since injuring his left foot chasing a foul ball in the Gators’ first game of the NCAA Tournament on June 3.
He spent most of his time in Omaha prior to Friday taking soft steps while hobbling around the team hotel on crutches.
Maddox wasn’t even sure if he would get a chance to pitch again this season.
“I had no idea honestly,’’ Maddox said Friday. “[Coach] kept saying I was going to and then today the situation presented itself.’’
You could say that.
Having already used four relievers after starter Alex Panteliodis held the Commodores to one run and three hits over six innings, Maddox walked into a hornet’s nest when he took the mound in the top of the eighth and the Gators nursing a 4-3 lead.
In his attempt to close out the Commodores, O’Sullivan had already handed the ball to relievers Tommy Toledo, Nick Maronde, Greg Larson and Steven Rodriguez.
Still searching for the right pitcher for the job, O’Sullivan called Maddox out of the bullpen with runners on first and second and one out in the eighth. If Maddox could get five outs and keep the tying run from scoring, he would earn his sixth save of the season.
The first batter Maddox faced, third baseman Jason Esposito, reached on a single to shortstop to load the bases.
Everyone’s blood pressure at TD Ameritrade Park spiked another notch.
“It was a stressful game for sure,’’ Gators outfielder Daniel Pigott said.
Maddox then hit Commodores designated hitter Conrad Gregor in the foot with a pitch, forcing home the tying run. Suddenly, a 4-1 Gators lead had turned into a tie game with all the momentum tilted Vanderbilt’s way.
O’Sullivan wasn’t going back out to the mound to make another change. This game was Maddox’s to win or lose.
“We had confidence in him,’’ O’Sullivan said. “He’s a strike thrower. He’s competitive. He might be one of our most competitive players. I don’t know if there was a perfect time to put him out there.’’
With the bases still loaded and the go-ahead run 90 feet away, Connor Harrell hit a line drive with “single to left field” written all over it. Instead, Gators shortstop Nolan Fontana made the defensive play of the game, stretching his body every bit of its 5-feet and 11 inches – Fontana looked as if he found an inch or two he didn’t know he had – to dive and snag Harrell’s hit that wasn’t.
“I thought it was through the infield for sure, and I turned around and Nolan caught it,’’ Maddox said. “I knew I got away with one there.”
Maddox finally got out of the jam by getting Bryan Johns to ground into a fielder’s choice to third.
The Gators raced back to the dugout knowing what they had to do in their final two at-bats. There was no dramatic speech or loud outburst – just a confident team that expected to leave the ballpark with a win.
“There was no doubt,’’ senior second baseman Josh Adams said. “We’ve been through so much. We know we are going to pull through and help each other out. It’s just one of those things. That’s how it’s been all year. Everybody was loose and we just went out and played.’’
By the time the bottom of the eighth was complete, Vanderbilt starter Sonny Gray was gone, Preston Tucker had his 20th RBI of the NCAA Tournament with a go-ahead single, and Maddox felt like a different pitcher when he took the mound in the ninth.
Maddox said he was hesitant at first to fully plant on his sore left foot as he followed through on his delivery. His command was off, too.
“I didn’t feel really comfortable,’’ Maddox said. “I felt like my mechanics were a little out of whack. The second inning I just said, ‘I’ve got to go out there and get three outs. However I’ve got to do it, I’ve got to do it.’ ”
The sophomore from Jacksonville with the overpowering fastball did it by retiring the first two batters of the ninth in order, and then after Aaron Westlake doubled to bring Casali to the plate as the potential tying run, Maddox reared back and retired him on the fly ball that landed safely in Thompson’s glove.
When you consider the major story line around the Gators’ season and why so many had them doing big things in Omaha – the experts all said the Gators have perhaps the deepest pitching staff in the nation – Friday’s win seemed a fitting way to reach the CWS championship series.
Instead of using No. 1 starter Hudson Randall, O’Sullivan went with Panteliodis, the staff’s wins leader a year ago who is now technically a No. 4 starter who pitches like a No. 1. And after he tried four other relievers, O’Sullivan finally turned to the closer who hadn’t pitched in nearly a month and told him to get five outs so we can play for a national championship.
Maddox provided the relief O’Sullivan sought. And not surprisingly, the Gators expected nothing less.
“We were pretty confident,’’ Randall said. “That eighth inning was just his warm-up. We knew he was going to be nails in the ninth, so we just had to get him one run.’’
O’Sullivan, who also serves as the pitching coach, didn’t second-guess his decision to remove Panteliodis after only 86 pitches. It may have taken him longer than normal Friday to find the right pitcher, but he eventually did.
Who knew the right guy for the job would be the one who hadn’t pitched in nearly 30 days.
“We did exactly what we needed to do,’’ O’Sullivan said. “I would have done everything exactly the same. I have confidence in those guys. They are the main reason why we are here.
“If you look at our club, our starting pitching is very good, but I think our bullpen is one of the main reasons – if not the biggest reason – that we’re here.’’
A half hour after his press conference was over and with the Gators waiting on the bus, a reporter asked about Brian Johnson, the No. 3 starter who hasn’t pitched since suffering a concussion on May 28. Johnson won eight games during the regular season.
He has returned to the lineup as the designated hitter but not to the mound. Does O’Sullivan expect to call Johnson’s number again this season?
“I do,’’ O’Sullivan said. “I don’t believe we’re going to be able to win this thing without him back out there. He is too good.’’