Nothing has come easy for No. 1 national seed Florida over the past two postseasons.
For the fifth time during that span, Florida faces an elimination game after suffering a 3-2, walk-off loss to Auburn on Sunday in Game 2 of the NCAA Gainesville Super Regional before 4,537 at McKethan Stadium.
The good news? Florida is 4-0 in those prior elimination contests, with wins over Bethune Cookman, Wake Forest, TCU and Florida Atlantic.
“Obviously, everyone is disappointed,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “We’ve been here before. Hopefully we’ll feed off that experience.”
The Gators (46–19) and Auburn (43–22) will conclude the series Monday night at McKethan Stadium (8 p.m., ESPN) with a trip to the College World Series on the line. O’Sullivan said he will start either one of two freshman — righty Jack Leftwich or righty Tommy Mace — and is leaning toward starting Leftwich because of Mace’s ability to warm up quicker out of the bullpen. Auburn will counter with fifth-year senior lefty Andrew Mitchell.
O’Sullivan said he has faith that either freshman can get the job done Monday with the season on the line. Leftwich and Mace combined to allow just two runs in six innings last Monday when Florida faced elimination against FAU, with Mace picking up the win in UF’s regional-clinching 5-2 win over the Owls.
“We’ve got to pitch well if we want to move on,” O’Sullivan said. “They are not freshman anymore. They’ve been through the SEC and both Jack and Tommy have pitched in high-leverage situations. It comes down to locating and executing.”
Florida had chances to close out the series Sunday after besting Auburn ace Casey Mize in an 8-2 win Saturday. Junior righty Jackson Kowar delivered his best start in about a month for the Gators, allowing just one run on three hits over seven innings with no walks and six strikeouts. Kowar left at 93 pitches with the score tied at 1.
Florida also played its best game defensively of the postseason, with no errors, a diving play at second base by Blake Reese to complete an out, and a quick-reflex catch by Jonathan India to snag a line drive at third base.
But UF was done in by some questionable baserunning decisions, an inability to come up with timely hits and its bullpen. Freshman lefty Jordan Butler and closer Michael Byrne surrendered two runs on four hits in the final 1.1 innings. As the home team in the second game of the regional, Auburn won the game in the bottom of the ninth with one out when senior second baseman Luke Jarvis lined a fastball from Byrne into the left-center field gap, scoring pinch runner Cade Evans from second base.
Butler (6-2) took the loss after walking Auburn third baseman Brendan Venter to lead off the ninth inning with the score tied at 2. After Butler fell behind the next batter, designated hitter Edouard Julien, 2-1, O’Sullivan summoned Byrne from the bullpen. Byrne came back to strike out Julien, but allowed a single to center fielder Jay Estes, then the single to Jarvis that won the game.
The Gators jumped ahead 1-0 in the top of the fourth, with center fielder Nick Horvath delivering a two-out RBI double. But Auburn answered quickly, tying the score at 1 in the bottom of the fourth on a solo home run by right fielder Steven Williams.
The score remained tied at 1 until the eighth inning. Florida had a chance to take the lead in the top of the 8th when Deacon Liput led off with a single, stole second and moved to third with one out on a throwing error by catcher Brett Wright. But with the infield in, India hit a line grounder to shortstop Will Holland, who threw home. Liput got caught in the rundown between third and home long enough to get India to second base before being tagged out. But with India on second, right fielder Wil Dalton then popped out to second base to end the inning.
Florida left six runners on base, including four in scoring position. Auburn freshman starter Tanner Burns worked out of trouble throughout the game, allowing a run on five hits and four walks. The Tigers turned three double plays in the game, including two behind Burns.
Auburn took a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the eighth when Butler allowed a one-out single to first baseman Joel Anthony and an RBI double by Holland. But Florida came back to tie the score at 2 in the top of the ninth when sophomore left fielder Austin Langworthy blasted his third home of the season, a solo shot deep to right off Auburn reliever Cody Greenhill (6-2), who allowed one run in three innings of relief to earn the win.
Auburn will be vying for its fifth trip to the College World Series in school history on Monday and its first trip since 1997.
“I didn’t think our guys blinked” Auburn coach Butch Thompson said. “Langworthy hit the big home run after we worked really hard to score the run and we come right back in the bottom half and found a way to score with Byrne on the mound.”