GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The first mini-monsoon arrived Saturday at 4:20 p.m.
Florida led North Carolina State by a comfy five runs in the bottom of the seventh, with slugger/superstar Mike Zunino at the plate with a full count and a Gator on first base when the home plate umpire signaled for play to stop.
When the game resumed two hours and three minutes later, so did the rain. A lot. Zunino fouled the first pitch off into the downpour, then sent Dillon Frye’s second offering into the O’Connell Center’s lower parking lot.
How he saw the ball, only Zunino would know.
“I was zoned in,” he said.
Same could be said for the top-seeded Gators, who mere days after dealing with the pomp and circumstance of the MLB draft performed every bit like a team that had nine players chosen, beating the Wolfpack 7-1 in NCAA Super Regional play before a McKethan Stadium crowd of 5,117, all but a handful of which split after two rain delays totaling nearly three hours.
The day at the ball yard may not have been very convenient, but it was awfully efficient for UF, with junior right-hander Hudson Randall firing yet another NCAA masterpiece, allowing no runs over seven innings, scattering six hits, striking out four and walking none. He's now 5-1 with a 2.48 ERA, 49 strikeouts and just eight walks in NCAA play.
“I felt good with everything,” Randall said.
So did his coach.
“He’s a gamer,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “Simple as that.”
All Gators were gamers Saturday and will have to be again Sunday, when another win in the best-of-three series will mean a third straight trip to the College World Series. If that scenario plays out, Florida (46-18) will no doubt have earned it because it will mean they went through the nation’s best pitcher in Wolfpack fab freshman lefty Carlos Rodon, one of three Golden Spike finalists. All Rodon has done in 2012 was go 9-0 as a collegiate rookie, with a 1.61 ERA in 111.2 innings, 132 strikeouts and 41 walks.
NC State coach Elliott Avent didn’t waste many words when asked in the post-game news conference how he felt about Rodon taking the hill with his club facing elimination.
“Pretty good,” he deadpanned.
He should. Not only are they trotting out arguably the nation’s best pitcher, but the Wolfpack know something about must-win games, having staved off elimination three times in the Raleigh, N.C., regional last week to earn the right to reach the super-sized round two wins shy of Omaha, Neb.
Florida is halfway there, but taking nothing for granted.
“[NC State] had their backs against the wall last weekend, on the brink of elimination. Our players realize that,” said O’Sullivan, who will counter Rodon with sophomore Jonathon Crawford (6-2, 2.92 ERA). “They won’t want their season to end. They want to go to Omaha as bad as we do. So we’re not going to be flat. We’re going to approach it like we’re down 0-1.”
The Gators also are no strangers to seeing big arms, having stared down LSU’s Kevin Gausman, the No. 4 overall player taken in the draft last week, and Mississippi State’s Chris Stratton, the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and 20th player selected, along with aces the likes of Ryne Stanek and D.J. Baxendale (Arkansas), Alex Wood (Georgia) and Kevin Ziomek (Vanderbilt) during the rugged conference season.
Plus, UF can roll out a few guys with draft pedigree, including the first five in the batting order. That quintet accounted for six of the team’s seven runs and RBI Saturday. In the middle of those numbers was Zunino, who was the No. 3 overall player draft and, like Rodon, a finalist for the prestigious Golden Spike Award as college baseball’s best player. He had two hits and three RBI in Game 1.
Collectively, the Gators know something about the big stage. More to the point, they know how to succeed on it.
“It’s always a battle,” senior outfielder Preston Tucker said. “Hopefully, having been there before is going to come into play.”
It should, but there’s something to be said about being one of the best and deepest teams in the country. There’s a reason the Gators, having played the nation's toughest schedule, are the tournament’s No. 1 seed.
“We’re one win away,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Hopefully, the weather will make for a better view Sunday. Then again, forecasts call for 70 percent chance of rain.
Time to zone in.