Florida wins SEC overall crown

Controlling their destiny, the Gators pull out a dramatic sweep of Vanderbilt.

Florida players launch into a wild celebration after defeating Vanderbilt.

NEIL BRAKE/Vanderbilt University
Published: Monday, May 23, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, May 22, 2005 at 11:41 p.m.

The grounder took a couple of hops before it landed in the glove of Justin Tordi. What he saw next is something he'll never forget.

"The look on (second baseman) Adam Davis' face, just to see that was amazing," Tordi said.

Tordi flipped the ball to Davis for a force out setting off a wild celebration on Hawkins Field. The Gators had completed a three-game sweep of Vanderbilt and claimed their first SEC overall title since 1998.

Florida already had the championship clinched minutes earlier when second-place Tennessee lost 4-1 against Georgia. But that was news to the Gator players who had battled to win three tight games on the road and five of their last six conference games.

"Tennessee lost?" asked reliever Mike Pete well after the game. "Cool."

Florida, which finished the regular season 38-18 and 20-10 in the conference, came into the game knowing a victory would give them the SEC title and took a 2-0 lead in the top of the third on Brian Jeroloman's two-run single. Vandy tied the game in the bottom of the inning on Mike Baxter's two-run homer.

Florida then wasted a pair of scoring chances, getting runners thrown out at the plate twice. In the fifth, the Gators had the bases loaded with nobody out and Matt LaPorta at the plate. But LaPorta flied out to left and Stephen Barton was cut down trying to score.

In the seventh, LaPorta ripped a double down the line but Davis was thrown out at the plate trying to score from first.

"It was frustrating," Tordi said. "But you have to let it go when it's done."

Tommy Boss kept the game tied with six strong innings before giving way to Pete, who retired six of the first seven batters he faced.

Then came the wild ninth. Tordi, hitless for the series and hitting .214 in SEC games, battled reliever Matt Buschman before lining a single to left.

"It was a perfect time to get my first hit of the weekend," Tordi said.

After two walks loaded the bases, a wild pitch by reliever Stephen Shao gave Florida the lead.

An intentional walk to LaPorta reloaded the bases, Jeroloman walked to plate another run. Brandon McArthur's fielder's choice made it 5-2 and wild pitch by Ryan Rote gave Florida a four-run lead.

"Their bullpen is supposed to be so awesome, but we were focusing on every pitch," Corsaletti said. "We didn't waste any at-bats."

When Pete walked the leadoff batter in the ninth, Florida coach Pat McMahon turned to reliable reliever Connor Falkenbach. Although Vandy scored one run on a single by Alex Feinberg, Falkenbach got Antoan Richardson to hit the game-ending ground ball.

Before the game, McMahon had gathered his team together, pointed a finger at each player and asked them a simple question.

"Who wants to be the guy who gets the final out?" McMahon said. "You could see their eyes get really big."

What followed was a dogpile to the left of the pitcher's mound and hugs all around as the players waited to board the bus that would take them back to the Embassy Suites. The team huddled near the first-base foul line, then asked Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley and associate athletic director Chip Howard to join them for a rousing cheer.

"We had some ups and downs this year, but it all came together," Davis said. "We did it ourselves this weekend."

Florida will work out today in Nashville, then bus to Hoover, Ala., for the SEC Tournament. The Gators face eighth-seeded Arkansas at 6 p.m., Wednesday.

Regional sites will be announced next Sunday night and Florida, with 20 wins in the SEC and the conference championship on its resume, appears to be a lock to host.

Vanderbilt, on the other hand, was eliminated from the SEC Tournament with the three losses and is a longshot to make a regional.

"I don't think so," Vandy coach Tim Corbin said. "But there will be a lot of teams in a regional that aren't as good as us."

You can reach Pat Dooley at 374-5053 or dooleyp@gvillesun. com.

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