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Gators coach Kevin O'Sullivan, right, watches Saturday's 5-2 loss to North Carolina.

Saturday May 31, 2014Weird Weekend Capped by Quick Exit for Gators

Gators coach Kevin O'Sullivan, right, watches Saturday's 5-2 loss to North Carolina.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It was tediously long and stunningly short.

It was lightning strikes and rain delays. It was baserunning blunders and botched at-bats.

It was big innings and close calls. It was familiar and unfamiliar.

The Florida baseball team's brief stay in the NCAA Tournament featured the ancient hidden-ball trick -- and it worked if you can believe that -- and a bloody player leaving the field after getting hit in the head by a pitch.

But that's not all.

Gators baseball

"It was just a very weird weekend,'' Gators coach Kevin O'Sullivan said early Saturday evening. "I didn't see it coming."

He's not alone.

Some of the things that took place at McKethan Stadium in a 24-hour span on Friday and Saturday are difficult to make sense of. They happened, there is no questioning that. Still, they will cause many to shake their head.

Start with the most obvious: Florida, the top seed in the Gainesville Regional and No. 2 overall seed, lost back-to-back games to College of Charleston and North Carolina.

You knew it was possible considering the Gainesville Regional was rated one of the toughest. And it did, any home-field advantage for the Gators swept away by two lengthy weather delays that thinned the home crowd drastically.

As soon as Florida's Braden Mattson grounded out to Tar Heels pitcher Spencer Trayner to end Saturday's 5-2 defeat, O'Sullivan bounced from the dugout and started toward home plate.

There, he congratulated North Carolina coach Mike Fox and his staff with quick handshakes and then retreated to Florida's dugout for the final postgame speech of the season.

Just like that, it was over. The regular-season SEC champion Gators' quest for a fourth trip in five years to the College World Series was squashed.

After falling into the loser's bracket Friday night with a 3-2 loss to College of Charleston, the Gators could not overcome a five-run third inning by North Carolina.

"It's very disappointing when your season comes to an end,'' O'Sullivan said. "This team accomplished an awful lot. For whatever reason, we did not play our best two games here at the end."

The losses played out in similar fashion.

On Friday, after a 3-hour, 10-minute weather delay prior to the first pitch, the Cougars roughed up Gators ace Logan Shore with three runs and seven hits in the first inning.

Florida didn't record an out until shortstop Richie Martin pulled off a hidden-ball trick. Shore eventually found his form but the Gators couldn't come up with the big hit like they did most of the season, stranding 11 runners on base.

On Saturday the lightning and rain held off until the bottom of the third inning. The game had already been halted for 15 minutes when North Carolina shortstop Michael Russell was hit in the head by an errant pitch from Gators starter Bobby Poyner.

Blood immediately gushed from the left side of Russell's head. He left the game and did not return, requiring stitches above his left eye.

Meanwhile, with two runners on and Poyner facing Wood Myers in the bottom of the third, a classic Sunshine State downpour dropped by McKethan Stadium. Another lengthy rain delay ensued, this one lasting 3 hours, 19 minutes.

When play resumed, the usually reliable lefty Kirby Snead took over for Poyner. He got Myers to pop out for the first out, but 12 pitches later the Tar Heels led 5-0, highlighted by back-to-back RBI doubles by Tyler Ramirez and Adam Pate.

"The damage was done,'' O'Sullivan said.

The Gators threatened more than once in the latter innings, most notably in the seventh when they loaded the bases with one out.

After catcher Taylor Gushue struck out, first baseman Zack Powers, who had struck out three times and stranded five runners in his first three trips to the plate, stroked a single to right-center field.

One run scored and Martin appeared about to make it a 5-2 game when he slipped on the wet grass about a quarter of the way between third and home. Martin scrambled to his feet but the slip gave the Tar Heels time to relay the ball home to nail him at the plate and end Florida's rally.

"It was unfortunate," UF third baseman Josh Tobias said. "We thought he was going to score."

The Gators added their second run in the eighth on Casey Turgeon's RBI single but left 13 runners on base, and 24 in the regional. The quick exit marked the second consecutive season the Gators were swept from the tournament in regional play, and first time in program history at home.

Florida has now lost six consecutive NCAA Tournament games dating back to their two-and-out trip to the College World Series in 2012.

As they tried to grasp the quick ending, the Gators also wanted to appreciate the journey. Few expected Florida to claim the SEC regular-season title and earn a No. 2 national seed when the season started.

"It was a fun season,'' Turgeon said. "It's definitely a shock [to end this way], but we didn't play our best games."

The Gators head into the offseason with a much deeper pitching staff than a year ago when they were swept from the Bloomington (Ind.) Regional with losses to Austin Peay and Valparaiso.

O'Sullivan

They found a Friday night starter in Shore, and while Gushue, the team's most productive hitter in 2014, has likely played his final college game, the program's foundation is solid.

The goal now is to rediscover the formula for winning in the postseason.

"I felt very good about it going into the weekend,'' O'Sullivan said. "It was a weird weekend altogether. I don't want these last two games to be a reflection of what this team was about. They accomplished a lot. I know in this day and age that you are always judged how you do in postseason.

"I understand that. We're disappointed. We're shocked. But at the end of the day, we accomplished a lot."

The Gators did surpass expectations. Still, they wanted more. And they looked ready to make it happen after a strong run in the SEC Tournament last week. That's what made a hot and stormy weekend back home to open the NCAA Tournament so weird.

 

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