GatorZone.com Senior Writer
OMAHA, Neb. – Some day they’ll look back on Game 1 of the College World Series against South Carolina with fond memories. Not the outcome, of course, since they lost a 2-1 heartbreaker in 11 innings.
But maybe in 10 or 20 years when the game comes up in conversation or when they come across an old hat or raggedy T-shirt or scratched DVD from Omaha, the Gators can smile when reminiscing about what took place at TD Ameritrade Park on Monday night.
They’ll remember how dominant starter Hudson Randall was, how he mowed down Gamecocks with the efficiency of a surgeon as he retired 18 of 19 hitters until a lead-off walk in the eighth inning to Peter Mooney.
They’ll remember another postseason moment for light-hitting third baseman Cody Dent, who drove home the game’s first run with an RBI sacrifice fly in the third. The Gators held onto that lead until Mooney came around to score on Scott Wingo’s two-out single that Randall nearly snagged.
“It tipped my glove but I just couldn’t get it down in time,’’ Randall said.
The Gators will certainly remember the bottom of the ninth. They loaded the bases with no outs and Florida fans everywhere assumed it was only a matter of time before the winning run came home.
And then Tyler Thompson hit a ball hard to Wingo, who stuck his glove out, speared the ball and threw home. His throw was short-hopped by catcher Robert Beary, whose foot remained glued to home plate to force out Mike Zunino.
Still, the bases remained loaded as Brian Johnson stood on third 90 feet from scoring the winning run. Daniel Pigott stepped into the batter’s box against Gamecocks sidearm specialist John Taylor.
Pigott hit a sharp grounder to Wingo, who once again made the play and threw home. Beary then threw to first to get Pigott in a bang-bang play at first. Double play. Extra Innings.
Johnson was still shaking his head at the sequence an hour later outside Florida’s clubhouse, especially the first play made by Wingo on Thompson’s grounder with no outs.
“That was a great play,’’ Johnson said.
And on Pigott’s grounder, Johnson said he “just took off for home plate’’ before looking to first hoping Pigott would be safe to at least give the Gators one more shot.
“It was a close play [at first] but it ended up not being enough,’’ Johnson said.
Those kind of plays happened regularly for the Gators over the final three innings.
They’ll remember Zunino’s single to left in the 10th – his first hit of the CWS to leave the infield – and Dent rounding third as the potential winning run. Instead, South Carolina’s Jake Williams threw him out at the plate, setting the stage for the dramatic 11th.
And as the Gators reflect on all the above one day, they won’t be able to forget the strange play that allowed South Carolina to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three CWS between the SEC East rivals.
It happened in the top of the 11th with one out when Christian Walker, who wasn’t even in South Carolina’s starting lineup until after testing his broken wrist in batting practice, singled.
With Adam Matthews at the plate, Walker took off for second. Trying to throw Walker out, Zunino’s throw bounced into center field, where Bryson Smith picked up the ball and threw to third as Walker headed that way.
Smith’s throw then bounced past Dent and into the stands, allowing Walker to score the winning run. The Gators threatened in the bottom of the 11th off Gamecocks closer Matt Price, but after Johnson’s single, pinch-runner Paul Wilson was stranded at second to end the game.
In the immediate aftermath of a game that had Twitterdom buzzing, disappointment hung over the Gators.
“It was a great game by both sides,’’ Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “It was a frustrating game for us at the end there, but the bottom line is South Carolina is the defending national champs for a reason – they make plays when they needed to.
“We had our opportunities. We needed to elevate the ball there [in the ninth] and to their credit, Wingo makes a great play and then Beary makes a great snag on the short hop, and they obviously get Pigott to ground into a double play.
“We needed to do something that inning.’’
Yes, one day the Gators will remember Monday for what it was – a great College World Series game. But now is not the time.
Florida faces a do-or-die scenario on Tuesday in Game 2 – either end South Carolina’s NCAA-record 15-game win streak in the NCAA Tournament or watch the Gamecocks celebrate another national title before it’s time to return home to Gainesville.
“Once tomorrow starts, this game is over,’’ Dent said. “We are just going to put it behind us and come out focusing pitch by pitch and do everything we can to win that game and force a Game 3.’’
O’Sullivan mentioned drawing upon the experience of losing the second game of the Gainesville Super Regional to Mississippi State on a walk-off home run by Bulldogs second baseman Nick Vickerson in the bottom of the ninth.
After Monday, Wingo probably replaced Vickerson as the most-disliked SEC second baseman by Gator Nation. Florida rebounded from Vickerson’s swing, and now they will try to do the same following Wingo’s clutch performance.
“This thing is a long way from over,’’ O’Sullivan said. “We’ll do everything we need to do to hopefully win.’’
O’Sullivan said that plan will include using Johnson on the mound if needed. The sophomore left-hander – Florida’s No. 1 starter to open the season – hasn’t pitch since getting hit in the head by a Zunino throw and suffering a concussion at the SEC Tournament a month ago.
If freshman Karsten Whitson struggles Tuesday, Johnson could be the guy to get the call in the bullpen.
So, the stage is set. The Gamecocks will try to repeat as national champions on Tuesday. The Gators will try to keep their season alive and hopes of winning their first national title like South Carolina a year ago, and in the process, join Ohio State and Michigan as the only FBS schools to win national titles in baseball, football and men’s basketball.
We got here Monday night with a thrilling CWS game that regardless if you watched from the stands or at home on TV or on your computer in an airport, you won’t forget anytime soon.
The Gators won’t. But they hope by the time they leave Omaha that it’s just a footnote in their memory.