Monday, May 30, 2016

UF Baseball: #1 Florida Finishes Runner-Up in 2016 SEC Tournament

For the second time in three seasons, the No. 1 Florida Gators (47-13) have ended their SEC Tournament run with a loss in the championship game.

Before I even dive into the shellacking that was the SEC Championship, let me first recap Florida's journey there. On Wednesday, the Gators played the longest game in tournament in history as they lost a 14-inning affair to the No. 7 LSU Tigers (42-18).

The next day, Florida turned around on less than 12 hours of sleep and beat Alabama (32-26) in an elimination game. Still not out of the woods yet though, Florida obliterated No. 3 Mississippi State (41-16-1) the next day to earn a rematch with LSU in the semifinals.

This time around, Florida prevailed behind timely hitting and superb pitching to set up a date with No. 2 Texas A&M (45-14) in the championship game. Here, Florida was finally figured out as the Aggies used two big innings to down the Gators and win their first ever SEC Championship.

Now that I've gone through the brief overview, let's take a more detailed look at each game.

No. 7 LSU (Second Round)
This meeting between these two SEC rivals was Florida's fourth straight game against the Tigers. On the other side, LSU was fortunate just to be in this game after overcoming a 4-3 ninth-inning deficit against the Tennessee Volunteers (29-28) in the first round.

This matchup was a dream for scouts everywhere as potential No. 1 overall pick A.J. Puk (2-3, 2.88 ERA) took the mound for Florida and Tiger ace Alex Lange (7-3, 3.56 ERA) toed the rubber for LSU.

Both pitchers threw extremely well. Puk had his longest outing all season as he went 7.1 innings and threw over 110 pitches. He allowed two earned runs on six hits, struck out seven, and walked two.

Lange matched Puk pitch for pitch, as he also threw over 100 pitches in seven innings and allowed two earned runs. He struck out 11 Gators while allowing five hits, walking three, and working out of bases loaded jam in the top of the first inning.

Florida's inability to knock Lange out earlier would come back to haunt them as they took a slim 2-0 lead into the eighth inning. With Puk still on the hill and one out, LSU began to rally when Antoine Duplantis doubled with one out. Following him, Jake Fraley singled and was able to advance to second base when Gator center fielder Buddy Reed made a mental error and fired the ball home as opposed to his cutoff man.

Seeing Fraley try to take the base, Gator backstop Mike Rivera made an errant throw to second base which allowed Duplantis to score and Fraley to advance to third base. The Tiger offense had awoken.

In an attempt to hold off LSU, Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan went to his bullpen and brought in All-SEC closer Shaun Anderson. The junior righty's first assignment would be LSU's best player: Kramer Robertson. This battle would result in the most controversial play of the game, and maybe even the tournament.

Robertson bounced a ball towards shortstop Dalton Guthrie, and the sophomore fired it towards the plate to gun down the tying run. Mike Rivera caught the ball and blocked the plate beautifully as he applied the tag to Fraley. Everyone knew Fraley was out, except umpire Jeff Head. He mistakenly called Fraley safe and the game was tied at two.

Rivera was livid! He chucked his mask to the ground and starting yelling at Head for his missed call. Soon enough, Sully was out of the dugout arguing on behalf of his catcher. Rivera was lucky to not get ejected for his actions. I don't blame him though, as I would have reacted the same way in his situation.

Despite the terrible call, the game was only tied and Florida had to focus on limiting the damage to just two runs. After Robertson stole second base and advanced to third on a wild pitch, LSU took a 3-2 lead when Bryce Jordan singled him in.

Now trailing, Florida had to muster up some offense with just six outs remaining. The Gators went down in order in the eighth and Anderson worked a perfect ninth to keep the score at 3-2. In the bottom of the ninth, Buddy Reed led off the inning with a double down the left field line.

This was originally ruled a foul ball as it hit substitute left fielder Brennan Breaux's glove and landed in foul territory. Upon further review, however, the call was overturned as Breaux was in the field of play when he touched the ball. As a result, Reed was awarded his double.

After Mike Rivera bunted Reed over to third, the Gators had two chances to knot this game up. The first opportunity went to freshman Nelson Maldonado, who struck out on three pitches. Now with two outs, Deacon Liput was Florida's last hope.

After a couple pitches, Liput drove a ball to the right side that found its way into the outfield for a game-tying RBI single!

From here, the marathon would begin as Florida and LSU played into the night to determine a winner. Four times the Gators put the winning run in scoring position and EACH TIME they failed to plate that runner. The most upsetting instance had to be in the bottom of the 11th inning. The Gators loaded the bases with no outs and needed just a deep fly ball to end the game.

With another chance to be a hero, Nelson Maldonado popped up to the infield for the first out. After Nelly, ninth inning hero Deacon Liput hit a shot down the third base line that should have ended the game. Yet somehow, LSU third baseman Chris Reid was able to snag the ball in the air and tag third base for an unassisted double play.

The inning was over and I was left in utter shock. I knew that at this point the Gators were in trouble. Three innings later, LSU finally broke through when pinch hitter Jordan Romero signaled home the go-ahead run off of Kirby Snead.

The Tigers would tack on one more run off of Michael Byrne to extend the lead to 5-3, and Florida would have no answer in the bottom of the 14th. Dane Dunning, who worked an incredible 4.1 innings of one-hit relief, would be charged with both the game-winning run and the loss. Conversely, LSU's Jesse Stallings would get the win as he pitched all of the extra frames and allowed just two hits.

Briefly highlighting some Gator hitters, Buddy Reed went 2-5 with a double, an RBI triple, a run, and one walk while Deacon Liput went 2-5 with an RBI single and a walk.

As I said in the intro, this was the longest game ever in the SEC Tournament as it lasted five hours and seven minutes. It was a tough loss for the Gators, as they had to turn around and play Alabama just 11 hours later.

Here are my final tidbits on the game:

  • Four Gators had doubles in the contest (Buddy Reed, JJ Schwarz, Jonathan India, and Mike Rivera)
  • The Gators stranded 12 runners on the base paths.
  • The Gators made an uncharacteristic two errors in the game.
  • Dalton Guthrie stole his eighth base of the season.
  • This is the eighth game in which A.J. Puk has been involved in that has ended in a Gator loss.
  • Though replay could be used to determine if Buddy Reed's double was fair or not, it could not be used to review the play at the plate in the eighth inning. This could be something we see changed in the future.

Alabama (Elimination Game)
In their first win-or-go home game of the tournament, Florida sent out freshman Brady Singer (2-2, 4.95 ERA) for his first collegiate start. He wasn't dominant but pitched well enough to keep the Gators in the game. In six innings of work, Singer allowed four earned runs on five hits while walking two and striking out none.

After walking and hitting a batter, Singer exited with two runners on base and no outs in the top of the seventh inning. With Florida winning 4-3, junior righty Frank Rubio came in for relief and recorded two big strikeouts before being pulled in favor of Kirby Snead.

Once Snead entered, Alabama pinch hitter Connor Short signaled to the knot the score up at four. That was all Coach O'Sullivan needed to see, as he pulled Snead for freshman Michael Byrne. The righty would not see much game time, as a throwing error from Jonathan India loaded the bases and led to Byrne's exit after just one hitter.

Nick Horvath was the next Gator reliever to take over as he came in with the bases now loaded. He wasn't phased though, as the lefty induced a fly out to end Alabama's threat.

Florida would score the go-ahead run in the eighth, and the late inning combination of Horvath and Shaun Anderson would retire Alabama's next six batters in order. It would be Horvath's second win of the year and Anderson's 11th save.

Offensively, the hero in this game was freshman Danny Reyes. Starting just his second game of the season, the Miami Springs product went 2-4 with a go-ahead RBI double in the eighth inning. This was his second double of the game as he was one of three Gators with multiple hits in the contest.

Florida's leading hitter was Mike Rivera, who went 3-4 with a double, a run scored, and a walk. Rounding out the multi-hit club, JJ Schwarz went 2-3 with an RBI, a run scored, and two walks.

The only other Gator to record a hit besides these three was Jonathan India, who was just 1-5 but drove in a game-high two RBI's.

Before moving on to Florida's next elimination game, here are my final tidbits on the 'Bama game:

  • Florida has now won three straight over Alabama dating back to the 2015 season.
  • JJ Schwarz showed his defensive prowess behind the plate, as he threw out his 17th runner of the year.
  • For the second straight game, Florida made two errors in a game (courtesy of Dalton Guthrie and Jonathan India).

With this victory, Florida was not at all out of the gauntlet. Their next opponent would be No. 3 Mississippi State. Though ranked third in the coaches' polls, the Bulldogs were the No. 1 seed in the tournament.

No. 3 Mississippi State (Elimination Game)
Having lost the season series in Gainesville to Mississippi State, the Gators handed the ball to sophomore right hander Alex Faedo (12-1, 3.49 ERA). This was a great chance at redemption for Faedo, as Mississippi State lit him up for nine earned runs on 10 hits the last time he pitched against them on April 9th.

It was a completely different story for Florida and Faedo this time. The game only went seven innings as the Gators mercy-ruled the Bulldogs 12-2. Even better, Faedo threw all seven innings and allowed just two earned runs on seven hits while striking out five, walking two, and hitting one batter. He would earn his SEC-leading 12th win of the year.

Florida's offense was in a different stratosphere this game as the offense banged out 14 hits and scored 10+ runs for the ninth time this season. Four Gators had multiple hits!

Leading all hitters was JJ Schwarz. Following up his two-hit performance from last night, the sophomore went 4-5 with a double, a triple, four RBI's, and a run scored. These next two Gators hitters accounted for more than half of Florida's run total.

Buddy Reed went 2-3 with just one RBI but three runs scored. Likewise, Deacon Liput went 2-3 and managed to cross the plate three times as well! Right behind Deac, fellow freshman Danny Reyes continued to impress as he hit his third double in two games and finished the game 2-4 with two RBI's.

The final freshman worth mentioning is Nelson Maldonado. Though he had just one hit, Nelly drew two walks and accounted for three runs while also driving in a runner.

After a solid revenge-win for the Orange and Blue, here are my final tidbits for the game:

  • Florida finally cleaned up their defense as the Gators made no errors in the game.
  • This is the second seven-inning game the Gators have played this year (May 21st at LSU).
  • Florida had not had more than 10 hits in a game since the series finale against Vanderbilt (43-17) on May 15th. Coincidentally, Faedo threw that game as well.

After knocking out the Regular Season SEC Champions, Florida had a well-deserve rematch looming with the LSU Tigers in the SEC Semifinals.

No. 7 LSU (SEC Semifinals)
In their fifth meeting in two weeks, Florida and LSU had an SEC Championship berth on the line. The Gators went with sophomore lefty Scott Moss (3-0, 1.61 ERA), who had not pitched since May 10th. Needless to say, he spun a gem!

Throwing six innings, Moss shut down the LSU lineup as he allowed no runs on three hits, struck out seven, and walked none. It was by far the biggest start of his young career, and Moss definitely did his job and arose to the occasion.

Moss was able to qualify for the win after Jonathan India laced an RBI double down the left field line to give the Gators a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the sixth. From there, it was up to the bullpen.

Dane Dunning, who threw beautifully against the Tigers in the opening game of the tournament, did his job yet again in 1.2 innings of work. He allowed just two hits and struck out three before Kirby Snead relieved him with two outs and a runner on first in the eighth inning.

Snead would get the job done. On just one pitch he got Jake Fraley to pop up to end the inning. In the ninth, who else but Shaun Anderson took the mound. His assignment was by no means the easiest, as he would be facing the heart of the LSU batting order.

The first one to step in the box was Kramer Robertson, who singled off of Anderson to start the frame. LSU tried to bunt him over with clean-up man Bryce Jordan, but that wouldn't be necessary as Robertson advanced on a spiked curveball from Anderson.

Down 2-0 in the count with the tying run on base, Shaun would fight back as he struck out Jordan and induced an easy groundout from pinch hitter Brody Wofford. With Robertson now 90 feet away from tying this game, it was all up to Beau Jordan.

The LSU left fielder cranked a pitch to right field, but recently inserted defensive sub Nick Horvath tracked the ball down and gloved it for the final out of the game. The rally possum was dead (I'll explain this later)! The Gators were on their way to their third consecutive SEC Championship!

Anderson pumped his fist after nailing down his 12th save, and Scott Moss was awarded his third career victory after an incredible performance.

Offensively, just know that Jonathan India led the way. His sixth-inning double was his second hit of the game and one of the biggest of his collegiate career.

Before steamrolling into the SEC Championship against No. 2 Texas A&M, let me give my final tidbits on what might be Florida's defining win of this year's tournament:

  • To fill y'all in, LSU has this "rally possum" fad that has blown up in Baton Rouge due to the fact that an opossum ran onto the field when the Tigers played Arkansas (26-29). After the opossum was removed, LSU overcame a 9-1 deficit to the Razorbacks and ripped off a 10-game winning streak before falling to Florida in the series finale at the Box. Florida countered the "rally possum" with a stuffed owl, and it blew up in the Gators' face when LSU beat them in their first meeting of the tournament.
  • Florida committed one error in the game, but it did not come back to haunt them against the Tigers this time.
  • LSU's trio of pitchers struck out less Gators than Alex Lange did by himself, as they only recorded three strikeouts in the contest.
  • Nelson Maldonado continued to show off his speed as he swiped his sixth bag of the season in this game.

With LSU gone and out of sight for at least a little while, Florida now turned their attention to winning the eighth SEC Tournament Championship in school history. Standing in their way were the Texas A&M Aggies, whom the Gators had swept in Gainesville earlier this season.

No. 2 Texas A&M (SEC Championship)
The SEC Championship presented much promise to Florida fans as the Gators were throwing ace pitcher Logan Shore (10-0, 2.41 ERA). What we did not expect was a one-inning, 15-pitch outing. 

That's right, folks. Shore was done after allowing one earned run on two hits and facing four batters. I do see Sully's reasoning in all this. Shore had been battling a stomach bug and Sully just wanted to get him some game action, though I figured it'd be at least three or four innings before Shore got the hook.

Nevertheless, Frank Rubio made his second appearance of the SEC Tournament and did a decent job as he allowed two earned runs on six hits in three innings of relief. After Frank, the wheels fell off.

Freshman Michael Byrne entered in the fifth inning, and was doing well until the seventh inning. Up until that point, Byrne had retired seven straight batters. It should have been eight, but Deacon Liput was playing the shift on Aggie first baseman Hunter Melton. This meant that he was out of his normal position and Melton's ground ball which should have been a routine out was instead a seeing-eye single.

It was not Liput's fault at all, just a really unfortunate set of circumstances. Still in no real trouble and with a 5-3 lead, Byrne induced a ground ball to third baseman Jonathan India that looked like an inning ending double play. Shockingly, India misplayed it and everybody was safe.

The next batter, J.B. Moss, hit a game-tying double the line. After him, two-hole man Nick Banks parked his second home run of the game to give the Aggies the lead for good.

Now trailing 7-5, Florida went down 1-2-3 in the top of the eighth and gave up a five-spot in the eighth inning. Kirby Snead, Eddie Demurias, and Nick Horvath were all victimized in Texas A&M's game-clinching rally.

With the score now laughably at 12-5, Florida again mounted no threat whatsoever. The Gators went down 1-2-3 in the ninth inning and the Aggies clinched the first SEC Championship in school history. It was a tough one to lose, especially considering the Gators had mopped Texas A&M in Gainesville.

Though Florida's offense sputtered late in the game, there were still some standouts worth mentioning. They both so happen to be freshmen as well. The first freshman I want to laud is Danny Reyes. Yet again, he killed it out of the seven-hole as he went 2-4 with an RBI and a run scored. 

Hitting a spot down from Reyes in the nine-hole, Nelson Maldonado also ended his first SEC Tournament on a good note as he went 2-3 with an RBI, a run scored, and a walk.

Of course, in a game like the SEC Championship, I can't just give praises to my Gators. TAMU's first two hitters, J.B. Moss and Nick Banks, single-handedly beat Florida today. Moss was 3-5 with two doubles, five RBI's, and three runs scored while Banks was 3-5 with two homers, three RBI's, and two runs scored. This Aggie lineup had quite the pop, and Florida experienced its full wrath today.

Before giving my final wrap up of another memorable SEC Tournament, here are my final tidbits from the SEC Championship:

  • This was Florida and Texas A&M's first meeting in the tournament since 2013 (TAMU won 6-3).
  • The Aggies banged out 15 hits against Florida's pitching staff!
  • Five of Florida's nine starters went hitless in the contest.
  • Following the trend, Florida committed two errors in a game for the THIRD time this week! Meanwhile, TAMU committed FOUR errors and still won the game convincingly.

Final Takeaway:
The SEC is hands down the best conference in college baseball. Look no other than at the championship game. Texas A&M and Florida (who are the No. 2 and No 1. teams in the country, respectively) were seeded third and fourth, respectively. That alone should attest to this conference's depth and competitiveness.

I'm not here to talk about the SEC, though. I'm here to address how this affects the Gators heading into postseason play.

Without junior first baseman Peter Alonso, this team still managed to make it to the conference title game and score 26 runs on 40 hits. It's obvious though that his bat is sorely missed in the lineup. Apart from the 12-run outburst against Mississippi State, Florida scored five runs or less in the other four tournament games.

However, there is a huge offensive bright spot from this week: Danny Reyes. 

Starting four of the five tournament games, Reyes went 6-16 (.375) with three doubles, four RBI's, and a run scored. It's no lie that the freshman proved himself to Sully, and he may be a huge factor for the Gators going forward into regionals and beyond.

Defensively, I was not happy with the Gators' fielding throughout the week. They made a total of seven errors in five games. Jonathan India made three of them and Dalton Guthrie accounted for two. 

Now these guys are superb fielders and I expect them to pick it up in the NCAA Tournament, but in the back of my mind I am hoping India's lack of playoff experience doesn't come back to bite him or the Gators. That same principle goes for Deacon, Nelly, and even Danny if he is out there.

Looking at the pitching staff, all of the starters were fantastic. Puk got hit with bad luck once again, Singer did well for the position he was thrown in, Faedo was fantastic, Moss was nearly impeccable, and Shore avoided getting hurt and is healthy for next weekend.

Now surveying the bullpen, I'd say the two most reliable arms are Dane Dunning and Shaun Anderson. Dunning ate up innings this weekend as he threw six total innings against LSU, struck out seven, walked none, allowed three hits, and gave up just one earned run.

Anderson was just as dominant. Though LSU tied the game off of him in the first meeting, Anderson is not at all to blame as he entered with a runner on third base. Shaun threw 3.2 innings in Hoover, picked up two saves, struck out three, walked none, allowed two hits, and gave up just one earned run.

The reliever I'd say may need a confidence boost after this week is Kirby Snead. Practically unhittable throughout the regular season, Snead was touched for at least one run or more in three of his four appearances. LSU scored the go-ahead run off of him, Alabama tied the game off of him, and Texas A&M roughed him up as the SEC Championship got out of hand.

I still trust Kirby with the game on the line, I just hope that is confidence gets back up to par after a rough week like this.

To tie it all together, it was a great week of SEC play. I extend my congratulations to Texas A&M for winning their first SEC Championship. I remember writing around the time of the sweep that Florida had to watch out for the Aggies in this tournament, and lo and behold I ended up being right!

The 64-team field for the NCAA Tournament will be announced at noon on Memorial's Day. From what I have seen on telecasts, Florida is projected to be the No. 4 national seed. I am fine with that. I just want to see this team make it to Omaha.

Regardless of where they are seeded and who they will play, the Gators will open up regional play at the Mac next weekend from Friday, June 3rd, to Monday, June 6th. The run to Omaha begins now!

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