GAINESVILLE, Fla. — With a two-run lead in the seventh inning Sunday, Mississippi State second baseman Nick Vickerson could smell the midwest breeze of Omaha, Neb.
Then, much like Vickerson did Saturday, the University of Florida baseball team changed the game with one swing.
Preston Tucker”s three-run home run helped Florida regain the lead and send it to an 8-6 win in Game 3 of the NCAA tournament”s Gainesville Super Regional.
The victory allowed the Gators (50-17) to clinch a berth in the College World Series for the second straight year. It sent the Bulldogs (38-25) back to Starkville with a gut-wrenching loss that capped a surprising postseason run.
“You can”t help but think that way a little bit,” Vickerson said. “Two runs late in the ballgame, we still got some good guys in the pen. I thought we really had a chance. Things just didn”t go our way. That”s how it goes.”
Vickerson, the hero Saturday after a walkoff home run sealed a 4-3 come-from-behind win, looked like a savior again Sunday after hitting a three-run home run in the fourth that cut the Gators” lead to 4-3.
But No. 2 seed Florida put MSU to bed with a season-high five home runs. All of Florida”s runs came via the long ball.
Daniel Pigott had a pair of homers, the last of which gave Florida a two-run cushion in the eighth. He and Tucker each had three RBIs.
Florida hit three home runs off starting pitcher Luis Pollorena, who lasted just two innings and gave up four earned runs in his worst start of the year.
MSU coach John Cohen said Pollorena wasn”t creating swing-and-misses and the hitters had a read on everything he was throwing.
“So many times you”re reading body language with a hitter, and you sit there and go, ”He didn”t see that pitch. He”s not locked in, he”s not seeing this,” ” Cohen said. “When Devin (Jones) came in, we were starting to get some of that and were working in and out with the slider. We were getting some good body language from hitters seeing they were not picking it up great. I never got that with Pollorena today.”
Florida continued its hot streak early, completing Regional and Super Regional play with a 39-1 run advantage in the first three innings of six games.
After an emotional loss Saturday, Florida coach Kevin O”Sullivan didn”t anticipate the early offense his team generated.
“The guys are swinging that bat good and putting some good swings on it,” O”Sullivan said. “I didn”t know quite how the game would go. I thought we might fall behind and we”d have to battle through it. I thought the makeup of MSU”s club would make it difficult on us.”
MSU”s other Game 2 hero, closer Caleb Reed, found himself on the opposite side of the storyline Sunday, giving up the go-ahead homer to Tucker.
Reed threw 82 pitches in his 5 1/3-inning relief effort Saturday, which earned him his first win of the season and first career win against a Southeastern Conference opponent.
Reed was the fourth of eight pitchers MSU used Sunday. He followed a brilliant three-inning stretch from Jones, who gave up three hits and didn”t allow a run, and Daryl Norris, who walked the two batters he faced and threw two strikes in 10 pitches.
“The two walks there by Norris is just killer; we”ve got to force early action,” Cohen said. “Daryl, the reason we have him in the game there is he”s one of our better command guys. But he”s a freshman and he”ll be better a year from now.”
The original plan with Reed was to have him get three outs, Cohen said. Reed started to tire once he got to Tucker, even after a short at-bat against Mike Zunino, whom O”Sullivan opted to have sacrifice bunt to advance the runners Reed inherited.
Reed threw a couple of pitches in the dirt before throwing Tucker a changeup down in the strike zone. Cohen said the plan was to pitch around Tucker, who hit a pitch out of the zone.
“Caleb told us, ”I want the ball in the ninth,” ” Cohen said. “The ninth was the seventh. The ninth in the kids” mind is different from the ninth in our mind. We weren”t gonna get to the ninth if we didn”t get Caleb into the game.
“He”s our best strike thrower coming out of the pen and I”d do that a thousand times in a row. He”s our best guy. He created some movement, some deception. Outside that one pitch, I thought he did a pretty good job for us.”
Trailing 4-3 in the seventh, Vickerson, tied the game with an RBI single on a 2-2 count with two outs. Tommy Toledo then intentionally walked Jaron Shepherd and loaded the bases for Brent Brownlee, who delivered a two-RBI single to left to give MSU a 6-4 lead.
“When that happens you”re just so pumped up and ready to go,” Brownlee said. “I just wish it would have been the ninth.”
O”Sullivan stuck with Toledo, a senior who has battled multiple injuries, after he gave up three runs. Toledo, one of the members of O”Sullivan”s first recruiting classes, retired the next six batters to close the game.
“It”s a very fitting end to possibly his last game at Florida with everything he”s been through,” O”Sullivan said. “I”ve got a great deal of respect for him and his family after the injuries and all of the ups and downs.
Vickerson was 2-for-5 with four RBIs. He went 9-for-22 with eight RBIs, three home runs, and five extra-base hits against the Gators this season.