Gators make it back to Omaha with comeback win over Bulldogs

Florida players celebrate after beating Mississippi State at the Super Regionals of the 2011 NCAA Baseball Championships on Sunday, June 12, 2011. The Gators beat the Bulldogs 8-6 to advance to College World Series.

Brad McClenny/Staff photographer
Published: Sunday, June 12, 2011 at 4:32 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, June 12, 2011 at 4:32 p.m.

It was a night of soul-searching for both Florida coaches and players.

After losing on a walk-off home run the day before, the Gators summoned enough resolve to beat Mississippi State 8-6 to advance to the College World Series for the second straight year and seventh time in school history.

The clinching win in the Gainesville Super Regional didn't come easy. After jumping to an early 4-0 lead, Florida (50-17) trailed 6-4 heading into the bottom of the seventh.

That's when Florida junior Preston Tucker delivered the biggest hit of his three-year Gator career.

With runners on second third, Tucker drilled a 3-1 changeup from Mississippi State reliever Caleb Reed over the center field fence to put Florida back ahead 7-6.

"I wasn't looking for a changeup in particular, but it was something I could handle and I saw it pretty easily," Tucker said. "So i put a good swing on it."

Mississippi State coach John Cohen said he wanted Reed to pitch around Tucker in that situation, but didn't call for the intentional walk.

"If you looked at the pattern, there weren't a lot of balls around the strike zone," Cohen said. "We kind of figured if you throw it out of the strike zone you could get him to chase and get an easy out. He just went down and got it."

Tucker's 14th home run of the season, and 40th of his career, couldn't have come at a more opportune time. After Mississippi State reliever Daryl Norris walked both Bryson Smith and Nolan Fontana to lead off the inning, Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan elected to have catcher Mike Zunino sacrifice bunt to move both runners in scoring position. Zunino, the SEC player of the year, had belted his 18th home run of the season in the first inning to give the Gators an early 1-0 lead.

"I felt like, being the home team, that if we bunted both guys up, even if we just got one run there I thought we could cut the lead one," O'Sullivan said. "I thought that would help with our momentum."

Instead, Florida got three runs courtesy of Tucker's big blast.

"We weren't down (emotionally), but everyone was questioning whether or not we could come back even though we've done it plenty of times this year," Tucker said. "So I think that completely changed momentum and we kind of carried it on to the next inning."

O'Sullivan feared that momentum would be on Mississippi State's side after its 4-3 walk-off win on Saturday. He summoned advice from both Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan and recently hired Florida offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. Donovan suggested that O'Sullivan call a team meeting on Saturday night.

"For a lack of a better term I had my head in my rear end last night," O'Sullivan said. "I needed to pick myself up because the players were going to look to me. We never meet as a team after a loss, but Billy thought it would be a good idea to get the team together last night just to see my face for 10 minutes and that's what we did.

"It doesn't work all of time. You're rolling the dice because it's something that you don't normally do all year, but I took his advice."

The advice worked early. Zunino put Florida ahead 1-0 with his towering home run to left in the bottom of the first. Daniel Pigott and Vickash Ramjit hit back-to-back home runs in the second. Pigott hit a two-run homer to put Florida ahead 3-0, and Ramjit followed with his first homer of the season to extend the Florida lead to 4-0.

But after cruising through the first three innings, Florida junior lefty Alex Panteliodis ran into trouble in the fourth. Panteliodis, making his sixth career postseason start, allowed back-to-back singles to start the fourth. Then Mississippi State clean-up hitter Nate Vickerson burned the Gators again. Vickerson, whose walk-off homer in the ninth Saturday forced Sunday's deciding third game, belted a three-run homer to cut the Florida lead to 4-3.

Panteliodis lasted just 4 1-3 innings before being pulled for Florida reliever Greg Larson. The Gators missed on an opportunity to extend their lead in the bottom of the fifth when Zunino was thrown out a home plate on a double from Tucker in the right field corner.

In the seventh, Florida's normally solid bullpen unraveled. Tommy Toledo, brought in to replace Nick Maronde with a runner on the second, gave up a game-tying RBI single to Vickerson. Then, after intentionally walking Jaron Shephard, Toledo allowed a two-RBI single to Brent Brownlee to put the Bulldogs (38-25) up 6-4.

But Tucker's home run allowed the Gators to regain momentum. Pigott added his second home run of the game, and fifth of the season, to put the Gators ahead 8-6 in the bottom of the eighth.

In all, Florida belted a season-high five home runs. It was the most home runs for Florida in a game since hitting six home runs on June 6, 2010 in a 15-0 win over Florida Atlantic.

"Guys are swinging the bat good, putting good swings on it," O'Sullivan said. "You need clutch performances like this."

Toledo (6-3) retired six in a row in the eighth and ninth inning to earn the win. When Vickerson flied out to the warning track to end the game, Toledo was mobbed at the mound.

"It's unbelievable," Toledo said. "To see my teammates run out there like that, there's no better feeling than to go back to Omaha. That was our goal and we worked together."

Florida will play its opening CWS game either Saturday or Sunday against the winner of the Texas-Arizona State regional

"I think when we got to Omaha last year we were kind of overwhelmed," Tucker said. "No one on the team had been there. So everyone was excited and wanted to win but I think we were a little young and inexperienced and weren't ready for it. So that's not the final goal, to get to Omaha. Our goal is to win more games."

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