In one of the gutsiest outings of his collegiate career, ace junior right-hander Alex Faedo (9-2, 2.26 ERA) was magnificent. He gave Florida 7.1 shutout innings while yielding just three hits, striking out 11 for the second consecutive game, and walking four Horned Frogs.
With his pitch count at 113 and Florida up 3-0 in the eighth inning, Faedo was pulled with one out and a runner on first base. In his place came sophomore closer Michael Byrne for the five-out save. He inherited a 2-0 count to freshman designated hitter Zach Humphreys and promptly fired in two strikes.
With the count 2-2, Humphreys singled off of Byrne to bring the tying run to the plate in junior catcher Evan Skoug. The night before, Skoug had delivered with a bases-clearing double that put the game out of reach. Could he do the same this time around?
With the count again 2-2, Byrne reared back and fired a fastball past the swinging bat of Skoug for the second out of the inning. It was a big-time pitch from Byrne, but he was not out of the woods just yet.
Stepping in now was senior cleanup man Cam Warner, who was hitless but had worked two walks earlier in the contest. With the count 2-1, Byrne got Warner to hit a deep fly out to right field to end the threat. Florida was now within three outs of the championship series.
In the ninth, Byrne sandwiched a groundout in-between a pair of strikeouts to send the Gators to the College World Series Finals. It would be the 18th save of the sophomore's already historic season and ninth for Alex Faedo this year. Depending on how the championship series goes, it may be the final collegiate victory for Faedo.
Florida upped their hit total from last night as they had seven base knocks in this game. They also increased their run total as they plated three in the contest. The Gators managed to scratch one across in the second, fifth, and seventh innings.
In the second, junior catcher Mike Rivera kicked off the scoring. With runners on the corners, he hit a grounder to the right side that second baseman Cam Warner dove and corralled. Warner was unable to pick the ball up in time though, and got just the one out at second base. Austin Langworthy would come around to score the game's first run.
In the fifth, Mike Rivera was again involved as he had reached first base on a hit-by-pitch. With the count 2-0 on Christian Hicks, the junior designated hitter drilled a pitch into left center for a double. Rivera would come all the way around to score to make it 2-0 Florida.
In the seventh, the greatest stroke of fortune hit Florida. With two outs and Christian Hicks on third base, sophomore shortstop Deacon Liput came to bat. He went after the first pitch he saw and hit a routine ground ball to first base.
As junior first baseman Connor Wanhanen prepared to field the ball, it struck first base and ricocheted to his right. Liput dashed into first base safe and Hicks came in to give the Gators a 3-0 lead. It was one of the more bizarre plays in Omaha, and it seemed fitting that Florida found themselves on the beneficiary side of it.
Christian Hicks picked a good time to heat up as he was the only Gator with multiple hits in the game. Going 2-3, Hicks doubled in the fifth, tripled in the seventh, scored a run, and had one RBI. For the remainder of the lineup, Deacon Liput went 1-4 out of the leadoff spot with his whacky RBI single in the seventh.
In the three-hole, junior first baseman JJ Schwarz notched his second hit of this College World Series with a double in the sixth inning. Behind JJ in the cleanup spot, sophomore right fielder Nelson Maldonaldo went 1-4 with a single in the fourth inning.
In the five-hole, freshman left fielder Austin Langworthy remained a rally starter as he went 1-4 with a leadoff double in the second inning. In the six-hole, sophomore third baseman Jonathan India went 1-4 as he moved Austin to third base with a second inning single into left field.
Both teams played perfect defense with neither club recording an error. For Florida, it would be their third consecutive errorless game. The Orange and Blue also picked off their third baserunner of the College World Series in this game.
In the fourth inning with one out, Alex Faedo caught senior shortstop Ryan Merrill leaning too far off first base. Merrill would be Faedo's second pickoff victim in Omaha, with teammate Nolan Brown being the first in the very same inning of the opening game.
With their season on the line for the third time in the NCAA Tournament, the Florida Gators answered the call. Now, they will prepare to do what neither team in 2005 or 2011 could do: Bring a baseball national championship to Gainesville.
Before previewing Florida's matchup against a very familiar opponent in the College World Series Finals, here are my final (lengthier than usual) tidbits on one of the biggest Florida Gator baseball victories in recent memory:
- Florida is now 17-22 all-time in the College World Series.
- Matching their 3-0 victory over TCU from Sunday, the Gators now improve their all-time record against the Horned Frogs to 2-1.
- Alex Faedo tied his own single-game College World Series strikeout record with 11 K's yet again. He has now surpassed LSU's Alex Lange as the nation's strikeout leader with 157 punch outs.
- In tonight's contest, Faedo became Florida's single-season strikeout leader. The record (148) had been previously set by Rob Bonano in 1994.
- I'm not done with Faedo yet. In his two College World Series starts this postseason, he boasts a stat line of 14.1 innings pitched, zero runs allowed on five total hits, 22 strikeouts, and six walks.
- It gets even crazier on the broader scale. In 33.1 innings of this 2017 NCAA Tournament, Faedo has allowed three runs (two earned) on 20 hits. He has struck out 51 batters while walking 22.
- Florida notched their 50th victory tonight, giving them their third consecutive season with at least 50 wins. This is the fourth time under Kevin O'Sullivan that Florida has hit the 50-win mark and sixth time in school history.
- This is Christian Hicks's 18th multi-hit game of the season.
- Langworthy's double was his ninth, Hicks's double was his 11th, and JJ's was his 12th of the season.
- Hicks's triple was both his first of the year and his career.
- Nelly leads all Florida players with four hits in this College World Series.
- Florida shortstop Dalton Guthrie had to exit the game in the third inning due to lower back pain. He says he will be alright for the National Championship.
- Despite Florida again tagging him with the loss, TCU ace Jared Janczak (9-2, 2.31 ERA) threw well. He allowed three earned runs on three hits in seven innings. He struck out seven Gators and hit only Mike.
- After Janzak left, sophomore right-hander Durbin Feltman was untouchable in relief. He struck out five of the six Gators he faced.
- All four of TCU's hits were singles.
- Senior outfielder Ryan Larson has zero hits in his last 23 at-bats with 11 strikeouts. If you ask me, he should not be in the lineup over the course of the championship series. He is just not the same after the injury he suffered in the SEC Tournament.
- 18,093 people were on hand to watch the Gators clinch a spot in the Finals.
So it all comes down to this. In the best-of-three College World Series Finals, the No. 3 Florida Gators (50-19) will be taking on the No. 4 LSU Tigers (52-18) in an all-SEC National Championship. This is the third time that two SEC schools have met in the championship round of the College World Series.
For Florida, it has to be a familiar feeling of sorts as they hooked up with South Carolina in the 2011 National Championship. They had lost the regular season series to the Gamecocks that year and went on to lose the National Championship in a two-game sweep. Six years later and Florida has limped into the title game still seeking that first championship.
I say "limped" because Nelson Maldonaldo is the only Gator hitting above .300 as the offense has begun to sputter. From a health standpoint, Dalton Guthrie, Nelly, and Garrett Milchin are all banged up with Alex Faedo unable to go unless a Game 3 is needed. I know Florida's backs have been up against the wall all season, but this is going to be the toughest mountain yet to climb.
On the flip side, LSU is looking to capture their seventh title after winning it all in 2009. They enter the championship round having won three straight elimination games and slaying the giant that was No. 1 Oregon State (56-6). They have first round ace Alex Lange (10-5, 2.97 ERA) rested for a potential Game 2 clincher and the offense is getting hot at the right time.
The Gators and Tigers are all too familiar with each other. They have met 109 times with Florida trailing the series 47-61-1. Since Sully took over in 2008 though, Florida is 18-11 against LSU. This will be the fifth meeting between these two rivals in the College World Series. The previous four matchups have not at all gone Florida's way, as they are 0-4 all-time against LSU in Omaha.
Earlier this season, these two hooked up for a three-game set at the Mac in mid-March. Florida took the first two games by scores of 1-0 and 8-1 while LSU won the final game 10-6 with a dramatic eighth inning comeback. That loss would ultimately come back to bite Florida, as they had to "share" the SEC regular season title with the Bayou Bengals.
In the SEC Tournament, these two were destined to meet for the fourth straight year, but a 16-0 drubbing to Arkansas knocked Florida out in the semifinals. It only made the Tigers' path easier in Hoover as they claimed their 12th SEC Tournament title by a score of 4-2 over Arkansas. This gave them a more valid claim to being the true champions of the SEC.
Well now the ultimate SEC champion can be decided as these two meet on the biggest stage of Division I college baseball. With all the animosity that these fanbases have toward each other, it almost seems fitting that the 2017 NCAA Division 1 Baseball National Championship will be the next chapter in this historic (and sometimes pretty nasty) rivalry.
On a personal level, I have had some of my friends dub this National Championship as the "Gonzo Series". The reason being that Florida is my alma mater and LSU is my law school. It is still surreal to me that both schools that I have academic ties to are playing one another in the championship series.
Even though it pretty much is a win-win for me, I will be pulling hard for my Gators. I have been this team's unofficial beat reporter for the last two seasons and I would want nothing more than for them to cap off my final writing days with a National Championship. Whether they have the personnel or offensive prowess to do it though is not for me to say.
Game 1 of what will be an awesome championship series is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Monday, June 26th. Sophomore right-hander Brady Singer (8-5, 3.18 ERA) will get the nod for Florida in the biggest game of his career while LSU's starter is still to be determined. The contest can be seen on ESPN and heard on the Gator IMG Sports Network.
*All stats accredited to FloridaGators.com
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