Florida advances to College World Series
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The craziness on Sunday at McKethan Stadium lasted until the very last out.
The tension was palpable throughout the ballpark as Gators reliever Keenan Kish, the seventh Florida pitcher of the game, faced N.C. State's Chris Diaz.
The Gators led by a run in the bottom of the 10th inning but the Wolfpack had the tying run at second as Kish delivered a 0-2 pitch to the plate.
Diaz froze. Strike 3. And then chaos erupted.
The Gators rushed from their dugout and formed a dog pile near the third-base line, celebrating a 9-8 roller-coaster victory and a third consecutive trip to the College World Series. Meanwhile, a steamed Diaz went face-to-face with plate umpire Steve Corvi until coaches pulled him away.
The contrasting scene unfolded at 7:13 p.m., or 6 hours, 8 minutes after Wolfpack ace Carlos Rodon threw the first pitch of Game 2 in the NCAA Gainesville Super Regional.
There was one heck of a game in between Rodon's pitch and Kish's strikeout.
"It was one of those I know I won't forget,'' Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said.
Once the Gators got back to their feet and lined up to shake hands with the Wolfpack, junior catcher Mike Zunino embraced N.C. State coach Elliott Avent.
In likely his final game at McKethan Stadium, an emotional Zunino told Avent that Sunday was as good as it gets on a baseball diamond.
"I've never met him in my life,'' Avent said. "He told me, 'That's the best game we played in all year. Your team is so tough.' The game speaks for itself."
Yes it does. Here are reasons why:
--A rain delay in the third inning that lasted 2 hours, 23 minutes.
--Avent's decision not to use his ace, Rodon, once the delay ended at 4 p.m.
"He begged. It was never going to happen,'' Avent said.
--The Gators' response against reliever Anthony Tzamtzis in their first at-bat after the delay. Gators senior outfielder Preston Tucker drilled Tzamtzis' first pitch for a solo homer and the Gators added three more runs in the inning to take a 4-1 lead.
--The way N.C. State fought back time after time, tying the game 4-4 in the fifth on Diaz's solo homer that barely curled inside the left-field foul pole. It came against Gators reliever Greg Larson, the first homer he allowed all season. The Wolfpack then took a 5-4 lead in the seventh on Danny Canela's RBI single.
"We've been doing that all year. It's something our team is known for,'' Canela said.
--Gators designated hitter Brian Johnson's solo homer in the top of the eighth to tie the game 5-5, and then freshman Justin Shafer's RBI single to score Daniel Pigott for a 6-5 lead. Casey Turgeon was thrown out at the plate on a play that Corvi didn't have the best angle on.
"I beat the throw,'' Turgeon said. "I thought I was safe."
--Jake Fincher's first home run of the season in the eighth to tie the game 6-6, a shot that came against Florida closer Austin Maddox, who twice failed to hold leads against the resilient Wolfpack.
--Finally, after the teams traded runs in the ninth to force extra innings, Daniel Pigott's solo homer run over the right-field wall to lead off the 10th. The Gators were not done and tacked on a much-needed insurance run on Josh Tobias' single to score Turgeon.
Still, the Wolfpack staged one more rally, this time off Florida lefty Bobby Poyner in the bottom of the 10th. That's when Kish was called on by O'Sullivan, and after a sacrifice fly by Trea Turner scored a run, Kish struck out Diaz to end a drama-filled afternoon.
Did you get all that?
"That kind of game and how it worked out, that's what I came back for,'' said Tucker after his final home game. "If I could pick a game I wanted to go out with here at home, I think that's the one.
"I definitely won't forget this game. This is what I came here for. Mentally and physically that is probably one of the most exhausting games I have played in. Fortunately we don't have to play tomorrow."
Instead, the Gators get to rest and recover from a game that took every bit of magic they could muster to win.
Next stop: Omaha.
The final leg of the journey was a result of what makes the Gators different than most other teams.
"They have pitchers for days,'' Canela said. "They are No. 1 in the country for a reason."
O'Sullivan had to go deep in his pitching staff and Kish answered the call with his first save.
The Gators still have work left if they are going to capture the program's first national title.
But before they looked ahead, they spent nearly half an hour on the field after Sunday's epic game, celebrating the moment with their families, friends and support staff in front of the visiting dugout.
Fans snapped photos of the players snapping photos. It was certainly a Kodak moment.
The Gators will soon begin preparing for Omaha, but as the sun began to fade early Sunday evening, they basked in one of their most memorable triumphs. One they envisioned since the first day of fall practice.
"It's not easy to get to Omaha,'' O'Sullivan said.
Sunday's memorable win proved how difficult it can be.