Gators hold back Razorbacks, 5-4, to win series

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Nelson Maldonado's two-run home run helped Florida to a 5-4 win Sunday over Arkansas at McKethan Stadium. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun/File]

It was tense — Super Regional tense — murmurs in the stands and sweat on the caps of the players who had battled for eight innings only to see high drama in the ninth.

Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan went out to talk to his pitcher, who had given up back-to-back doubles to start the ninth.

Michael Byrne’s heart just kept thumping along Sunday.

Thump-thump.

Thump-thump.

“I think he was irritated I came out,” O’Sullivan said. “I really didn’t have much to say.”

Instead, he just got out of the way and let Florida’s closer do his thing.

Byrne saw his scoreless streak come to an end at 26⅔ innings, but the run that really mattered never left second base as the No. 2 Gators held on to beat No. 4 Arkansas 5-4 and take the series two games to one.

Florida (21-5, 4-2 in the SEC) had taken the lead in the bottom of the seventh when Nelson Maldonado — mired in a 3-for-22 slump — tomahawked a high fastball for a two-run homer to left.

To say the ball got out of McKethan Stadium in a hurry would be an understatement and Maldonado stuck his No. 1 pointer finger in the air as he rounded first base.

First his right hand, then his left.

“That felt awesome,” Maldonado said of his fourth homer of the season. “I feel like I have a lot more confidence now. It just took one turn off the bat.”

The homer came off Arkansas (17-7, 4-2) closer Matt Cronin. That both closers were in the game in the seventh tells you how much both coaches valued this rubber game.

“I knew he threw hard and I was just waiting for a fastball and looking to elevate it,” Maldonado said. “I was very frustrated, but my coaches told me to stay relaxed and stay patient and that’s what I did.”

That homer came after Byrne came into the game in the sixth innings with the bases loaded and got out of the jam.

“Michael Byrne is special,” O’Sullivan said. “He just has a different temperament. He can handle those situations. He doesn’t get rattled.

“He has the right heartbeat. He never gets excited.”

Byrne got out a mini-jam in the eighth before giving up the back-to-back doubles in the ninth. Heston Kjerstad, who had seven hits for the weekend, led off with a double and held at third when Dominic Fletcher doubled to right center, just missing a game-tying home run.

“I knew it wasn’t going out because you have to put a charge into one to get it out in center,” Byrne said.

A line drive to right brought home one run, but right fielder Wil Dalton kept Fletcher at second with a laser-throw to third. After a soft fly out to right by Evan Lee, Grant Koch hit a squibber to first that first baseman Keenan Bell gobbled up for the final out.

“We knew it was going to come down to the last out,” O’Sullivan said. “The Arkansas lineup, they can get it going in a hurry as you saw in the ninth. That was two really good teams playing baseball at a high level. It kind of had that Super Regional feel to it.

“We probably needed to be tested that way.”

The Gators scored the first run of the game when Jonathan India hit a triple and scored on a Blake Reese sacrifice fly.

Arkansas, which loaded its lineup with seven left-handed bats to start the game to neutralize starter Tyler Dyson’s slider, took the lead with back-to-back homers in the fourth by Jared Gates and Lee.

In the bottom of the inning, JJ Schwarz put Florida back in the lead with a two-run homer to left-center, his seventh homer of the year.

But Dyson ran into trouble again in the fifth, giving up a walk and a double before being replaced by freshman Jordan Butler. Fletcher’s sacrifice fly tied the game but Butler was able to get out of the inning.

The Gators face Florida State on Tuesday in Jacksonville before another important SEC series against East-leading Vanderbilt starting Friday.


Sunshine showdown

Who: No. 7 Florida State (20-5) vs. No. 2 Florida (21-5)

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville

Radio: 103.7-FM

TV: SEC Network

1 COMMENT

  1. First chance to see the Gators on TV this season yesterday and liked what I saw. My impression is that the Gators are a bit more aggressive at the plate than the last season or two, even Maldanado, and the results are showing. Taking two out of three against both S Carolina and Arky the past 2 weekends is an accomplishment and hopefully they can continue this momentum. Also, the news about the completely new stadium to be built is awesome; about time! Go Gators Baseball (softball too!).