OMAHA, Neb. — Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan liked what he saw through the first four innings on Saturday night against two-time defending national champion South Carolina.
If the game had stopped there, O’Sullivan would have left TD Ameritrade Park early Sunday with a much better start to his Father’s Day.
These College World Series games last nine innings like the rest, however, and at the start of the fifth inning South Carolina’s magic returned and the Gators’ bid to snap the Gamecocks’ NCAA-record postseason winning season came crashing down in a 7-3 loss to the Gamecocks.
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The turn of events dropped Florida into the loser’s bracket, where the Gators will face Kent State on Monday afternoon in an elimination game.
“There is a reason why they have such a winning streak in the postseason,” O’Sullivan said. “They had some momentum there in the fifth and it just felt like it got passed down from guy to guy.”
The No. 1 overall seed, Florida struck first on senior outfielder Preston Tucker’s two-run double in the third inning. The Gators had an early lead and the momentum as starter Brian Johnson took the mound in the fifth.
Pitch by pitch that momentum began to swing in South Carolina’s favor.
Evan Marzilli led off with a double. Christian Walker followed with a single. Adam Matthews walked to load the bases.
O’Sullivan visited the mound to chat with Johnson as sophomore Erik Payne stepped to the plate. The inexperienced Payne had only 16 RBIs all season, so if the left-handed Johnson could get Payne out, he would then face the left-handed hitting and more experienced LB Dantzler.
Well, that plan went kaput when Payne ripped Johnson’s high fastball on a 2-2 count into the right-center gap for a three-run triple. Dantzler followed with an RBI double to center and the damage was done.
South Carolina scored five times in the inning on the way to extending its postseason winning streak to 22 games. The Gamecocks have won 12 consecutive games in Omaha, including three in a row over the Gators dating back to last season’s CWS Championship series.
“When you get down with a guy like Johnson on the mound and as good of pitchers as they’ve got in the bullpen over there, it can be a major task,” South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. “Those guys know that when you get a crack, you have to be able to go in there and fight.
“We were able to have a big inning.”
Johnson left after facing Dantzler and the Gators trimmed the lead to 5-3 on catcher Mike Zunino’s sacrifice fly in the fifth. But that would be their last run.
The Payne and Dantzler at-bats did the Gators in.
“We elected to let Brian pitch to Payne,” O’Sullivan said. “And obviously Payne had a good at-bat and so did Dantzler. It was just one of those things. I thought they had some really good at-bats that inning.
“In those situations we’ve just got to be a little better at execution. They’ve got a momentum thing going on right now and obviously we weren’t able to stop it there in the fifth and that was the difference in the ballgame.”
The Gators now must battle back from the loser’s bracket, something they didn’t have to do last season on the way to a matchup against the Gamecocks in the Championship Series.
The Gators’ quest to extend their stay in Omaha will start with Hudson Randall’s right arm on Monday against Kent State.
O’Sullivan elected to start Johnson (2-0, 2.40 ERA against South Carolina this season prior to Saturday) in the first game to have Randall ready for Game 2.
The Gators were disappointed at another loss to the Gamecocks, but they voiced confidence in having what it takes to extend their stay for a shot at the programs’ first national title.
“A quality of a championship team is when you bounce back from failure,” freshman third baseman Josh Tobias said. “We’re a championship team and we’re going to bounce back and come out fighting Monday night against Kent State.”
Tucker, who went 2-for-5 on Saturday, said if any team can battle back it’s the Gators.
“You’ve got to have pitching in this tournament to win ballgames and I think that’s one thing our team has,” Tucker said. “Obviously it’s going to be tough but it’s been done before. I think if anyone can do it we can. We have a great bullpen, we’ve got guys we trust, and I think we have a good shot if we go out there and pitch the way we can.”
Only six teams since 1988 have lost their first game in the CWS to advance to the Championship Series.
The Gators managed seven hits and three runs off Gamecocks ace Michael Roth, but instead of rallying against South Carolina’s bullpen, the Gators had one of their worst innings of the season in the ninth to allow the Gamecocks to stretch the lead.
There was a leadoff walk to Walker, a wild pitch, a fielding error on reliever Steven Rodriguez and a throwing error by first baseman Vickash Ramjit. The rough patch combined provided South Carolina with a pair of insurance runs and dampened the Gators’ mood even more.
“It was uncharacteristic,” O’Sullivan said. “To be quite honest with you, I just think South Carolina beat us in every phase of the game. They outpitched us, obviously outhit us, and they played better defense.
“It was just a really well-played game by South Carolina and obviously not one of our best.”
That will need to change on Monday when the Gators take the field with their season on the line.