Gators baseball: UF squanders 4-0 lead, fall 6-4 to No. 1 Tennessee in 11th inning

Graham Hall
Gator Sports

For the second consecutive Sunday, the Gators allowed the opposition to force extra innings with a ninth-inning rally, only this time there would be no late heroics at the plate for UF. 

Despite an impressive outing on the mound from starting pitcher Brandon Neely and a memorable first start by Jac Caglianone, the Gators fell, 6-4,  in the 11th inning to No. 1-ranked Tennessee as the Volunteers completed the sweep Sunday at Condron Ballpark.

“Unfortunately, in this league, against really good teams, good isn’t good enough. We’ve got to be able to rise up and make a pitch, a play or an at-bat during the course of the game,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said.

Florida jumped out to a 2-0 lead on just one hit in the first inning after Tennessee starting pitcher Drew  Beam walked two batters and hit another with a pitch. Jud Fabian and Sterlin Thompson pulled off a double steal before the Vols walked Wyatt Langford, loading the bases as BT Riopelle came to the plate. Riopelle would get plunked by Beam, scoring Fabian, and Kendrick Calilao would score Thompson on a sacrifice fly to center field. 

In the top of the second inning, Neely struck out the side to preserve UF’s 2-0 advantage in a series that had been one-sided until Sunday, considering the Gators had been outscored a combined 11-2 in dropping the first two games of the weekend. 

The Gators pushed the lead to 3-0 on freshman Jac Caglianone’s solo home run, and Caglianone would further extend the advantage in the sixth inning with a sacrifice fly to left-center field that scored Josh Rivera, who had reached third on a throwing error.

It looked as if Florida, up 4-0 through six innings of play, would avoid getting swept at home by the nation’s top-ranked team, but the Vols had other intentions.

Tennessee got on the scoreboard — and broke up Neely’s no-hit bid — in the seventh inning on an RBI groundout by Trey Lipscomb, and the Vols cut UF’s lead to 4-2 in the top of the ninth inning when Jorel Ortega homered to left-center field. 

Blake Purnell, tasked with saving the game for the Gators, would strike out the next two Tennessee batters he faced, bringing UF within an out of victory, but the Vols managed to load the bases with a pair of singles and a walk. A single from Christian Moore scored a pair of runs, tying the game, and UF couldn’t score in the bottom of the ninth, setting up extra innings. 

Neither team managed a hit in the 10th inning, but with Moore due up in the 11th, the Vols sensed an opportunity to complete the comeback and secure the sweep.

The freshman stepped to the plate and delivered a two-run home run to left-center field, which proved to be the decisive at-bat after UF went down in order in the bottom of the inning.

“We’re just finding ways to do things at the worst time in the game to put ourselves in tough spots,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “It’s disappointing, there’s no question, but we’ve got no other alternative but to come back this week and try to get better, put ourselves in a good position to play a little bit better against Kentucky.”

Florida's Sterlin Thompson (26) records an RBI in the bottom of the third inning on Friday night against Tennessee at Condron Family Ballpark in Gainesville.

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Here are 3 takeaways from Sunday’s contest.

Brandon Neely’s impressive start ends in vain

Freshman right-handed pitcher Brandon Neely’s third collegiate start was his most impressive yet. Neely had a no-hitter through 6.1 innings, and he finished his start having struck out eight batters, eclipsing his previous career-high of seven strikeouts. Across 93 pitches, Neely walked just two batters and hit another as the Gators built a four-run lead during his time on the mound. He exited to a standing ovation, though Neely’s impressive performance was an afterthought in the wake of Tennessee’s comeback. 

However, O’Sullivan made sure it wasn’t forgotten in his postgame address to a disappointed group of Gators. 

“Brandon Neely was awesome today. He competed, he poured his heart out there and made some big pitches. He was really good. He gave us a chance to win. I can’t say enough about his effort today,” O’Sullivan said. “The first thing I said to the team at the end was Neely’s effort was outstanding. I didn’t want that to get lost in the whole deal. He’s going to be a really good pitcher for us.”

Jac Caglianone’s debut wasted, too

Neely wasn’t the only Gator whose strong showing didn’t lead to a desirable result for the collective.

In his first career start, freshman pitcher/first baseman Jac Caglianone was impressive at the plate. The highly touted Tampa native, having struck out looking in his first at-bat, smashed a solo home run with an exit velocity of 109 miles per hour to center field in the fourth inning. 

Two innings later, Caglianone would hit a sacrifice fly to center field, scoring Josh Rivera. During his final at-bat, and with the Gators looking to break the deadlock in the ninth inning, Caglianone was hit by a pitch, putting the winning run on-base that UF couldn’t capitalize on. 

It may have been an impressive showing, but O’Sullivan wasn’t about to guarantee Caglianone a larger role just yet. If anything, UF’s head coach was more eager to discuss what the freshman has overcome since his high school career concluded. 

“He’s coming off Tommy John, so it’s taken some time for him to get some live at-bats. We had a decision to make: whether we were going to pursue this thing as a hitter this year or go ahead and continue with a redshirt. So it was a decision that obviously he and his family had talked about, this wasn’t a decision made at the last second. Obviously, Jac’s a prospect on the mound, and he decided that he wanted to jump into this thing, and I felt good about it,” O’Sullivan said. “I couldn’t sit here and tell you I thought he was going to hit a home run today, or, I think the left-on-left sacrifice to center was equally as impressive, for a guy who hasn’t played in a long time. But, he’s big and strong, he’s aggressive – certainly I think he can add some things to our line-up, but it’s one game. It’s one game, but certainly today he had a good day at the plate.”

Kevin O’Sullivan says Gators need day off to regroup

With just four SEC series remaining, and with a winning percentage of 33.3 percent in conference play, the Gators have ground to make up over the final month of the season if the program hopes to make a postseason push. 

UF won’t play a midweek contest in the build-up to hosting Kentucky for a weekend series, giving the team ample time to regroup. Before the Gators can come back together and prepare to face the Wildcats, O’Sullivan emphasized the team needs a day away from the program to process the emotions from the weekend. 

“Everybody’s disappointed, everybody’s frustrated. Probably just need to get away for a day and regroup on Tuesday. There’s nothing you can say at this point right now. Everybody just needs to kind of regroup, reflect, look at the weekend in their own way that they feel that they need to look at it, and we need to come back on Tuesday and have a good practice,” O’Sullivan said. “But we can’t let it leak into Kentucky, because we still control our own destiny.”

O’Sullivan stressed the disappointment amid losses to the nation’s top-ranked team are a result of UF’s high internal expectations. If the Gators didn’t feel as if they could compete with the best, and had a history of doing so, it wouldn’t sting nearly as much. 

“When you're in a spot like we are, and you’re not winning, it’s easy to get down,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “But I’ve said this before, too: if everybody’s happy-go-lucky and you’re not winning games, it’s probably a program that hasn’t won anything, hasn’t had success. So, it comes with the territory.”