Florida senior outfielder Ryan Larson remembered the advice from his coach shortly before coming up to the plate Saturday night with the bases loaded and the game on the line.
“Watching a game in the locker room a few days ago and Sully (Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan) spit out some stat that 74 percent of game-winning hits are hit up the middle,” Larson said. “So I decided to stay up the middle of the field.”
Larson lined an RBI base hit up the middle with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the 11th, lifting Florida to a 2-1 win in its opening Super Regional game with Wake Forest before 3,910 at McKethan Stadium.
Florida (46-17) is one win away from reaching the College World Series for the third straight year and 11th time in school history. The Gators and Wake Forest (42-19) will resume the best-of-three Super Regional at 3 p.m. Sunday, with sophomore Jackson Kowar starting for UF.
“Another one-run game,” O’Sullivan said. “We needed to make a ton of pitches and again we continued to make pitch after pitch. They left 11 on base. It seemed like that. They had some opportunities.”
It was a wild game that included a three-hour-and-49-minute weather delay, a postseason record 23 strikeouts from UF pitchers and closer Michael Byrne’s first blown save of the season.
“Not an easy game,” O’Sullivan said. “But we did just enough to win.”
With the score tied at 1, Florida loaded the bases in bottom of the inning when third baseman Jonathan India walked to lead off the inning and first baseman JJ Schwarz and right fielder Nelson Maldonado were hit by pitches by wild Wake Forest closer Griffin Roberts. Wake Forest then pulled Roberts for freshman righty Colin Peluse, who struck out UF pinch-hitter Mark Kolozsvary for the second out.
That set the stage for Larson. Playing in his first game since being hit in the head by a pitch on May 26 against Mississippi State in the SEC tourney, Larson laced a 1-0 fastball up the middle for the walk-off hit and was mobbed by teammates shortly after he rounded first base.
“It was pretty cool, definitely a lot of fun tonight,” Larson said. “You even have fun when you sit around the locker room for three hours, waiting around, goofing off. We stayed pretty loose as a club, but tonight was a lot of fun. Definitely a memory for sure.”
Michael Byrne (4-4) earned the win for the Gators, allowing one run in three innings. Florida handed the ball to Byrne with a 1-0 lead in the top of the ninth, but the sophomore righty closer blew his first save of the season when Wake Forest catcher Ben Breazeale lined an opposite field home run over the left field wall on the second pitch.
Alex Faedo and Brady Singer each pitched four scoreless for the Gators, combining to strike out 17 batters in eight scoreless batters.
O’Sullivan said he didn’t have any second thoughts about going to Byrne in the ninth inning. Byrne has recorded a school-record 16 saves this season, including two in last week’s regional.
“There was a lot of emotional pitches that Brady had to make and we’ve gone to Michael Byrne the whole year,” O’Sullivan said. “That happens. The kid put a good swing on a pitch. What are you going to do? He earned it, went the opposite way and we can still use both those guys Monday.”
Byrne worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the 10th by striking out Breazeale to end the inning, then held Wake Forest scoreless in the 11th
“My mindset was just to continue to throw strikes, get ground balls,” Byrne said.
Making what will likely be the final home start in his Florida career, Faedo was on a roll early. He struck out the side in both the second and fourth innings. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Tampa native ran into trouble in the third inning, allowing three straight singles with one out to load the bases. But he got out of the jam by striking out Wake Forest cleanup hitter Gavin Sheets and getting Breazeale to ground out to shortstop.
Florida, meanwhile, manufactured a run in the third inning. Mike Rivera led off the inning with a single and moved to second when Deacon Liput walked. India sacrificed both runners over to second base. With Wake playing the infield back, Dalton Guthrie drove in Rivera from third with a groundout to first, putting the Gators up 1-0.
After the delay, the Gators turned to Singer, who allowed just two hits over the next four innings with eight strikeouts.
“We had a tough decision to make,” O’Sullivan said. “I just know how well Wake Forest hits and you’ve got to win game one. Both guys will be available for this weekend.”
Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Brockway’s blog at Gatorsports.com.