Gators turn to ace with season on the line
OMAHA, Neb. -- Less than 12 hours after losing their opening game at the College World Series, the Gators were back on the field on a warm Sunday morning.
About a mile away from TD Ameritrade Park, the Gators took batting practice, fielded ground balls and did what they normally do at practice during a workout at Creighton University.
That's not entirely true. The Gators added something else to their routine following a 7-3 loss to South Carolina that sent them to the loser's bracket and potential elimination on Monday afternoon against Kent State.
"Flushing [Saturday] and moving on to Kent State,'' junior shortstop Nolan Fontana said of the focus at practice. "A lot of things didn't go right for us, but that's how the game is. We've got to regroup and have a good meeting tonight and get after it [Monday]."
By now you know the Gators didn't play like the No. 1 overall seed in their third consecutive loss to the Gamecocks in Omaha. They blew an early lead, made three errors, left nine men on base and played uncharacteristically sloppy baseball in the ninth inning that helped South Carolina tack on a couple of late insurance runs.
The loss put their season on the line Monday when they face the Golden Flashes, who along with Stony Brook have been fan favorites for their unlikely runs to the CWS. Stony Brook was eliminated Sunday by Florida State and the Gators hope to send Kent State packing on what is expected to be a 100-degree afternoon here.
The heat is on but the Gators like their chances because of the lanky redhead from Georgia who has been the pitching staff's anchor the past three seasons.
Junior right-hander Hudson Randall (9-2, 2.61 ERA) takes the hill Monday and looks to add to his school-record five NCAA Tournament wins.
"Ever since I got here in college I've been living for those big moments,'' Randall said Sunday. "I feel like I rise to the occasion and I love those moments. I'm excited to get out there for my team and be on the mound."
Randall's consistency in the postseason over the past three years has been as steady as the long line outside the Zesto's window beyond the right-field wall at TD Ameritrade Park.
In nine career starts in the NCAA Tournament, Randall is 5-1 with a 2.50 ERA. He is 2-0 with a 0.71 ERA in this year's tournament, beating Georgia Tech and N.C. State on the road to Omaha.
"Huddy is ice,'' Fontana said. "He's always been that way and he'll always be that way. He loves the ball in these situations and there is no other guy we'd rather have it."
Randall was brilliant in his last start in Omaha, limiting South Carolina to three hits and one run in Florida's 2-1 loss in 11 innings in Game 1 of last year's CWS Championship Series.
He'll take the same approach to the mound on Monday against Kent State, which dropped into the loser's bracket with an 8-1 loss to Arkansas on Saturday.
"I love going out there and going the whole game for my team, saving the bullpen bullets,'' Randall said. "I'm just going out there and try to get the motivation and momentum back on our side."
The Gators never visited the loser's bracket a year ago on the way to the championship series. To get back they will need to win four consecutive games, which many believe they can do because of their deep pitching staff and dangerous lineup.
Gators head coach Kevin O'Sullivan quickly developed tunnel vision after Saturday's loss.
"Once you're in the loser's bracket you can't look too far ahead,'' O'Sullivan said. "We'll just concern ourselves with Monday. We got Hudson and we got a lot of our pen left."
Meanwhile, Kent State is expected to have a lot of fan support as the clear underdog. The Golden Flashes are making their first trip to the CWS.
Following Saturday's loss to Arkansas, head coach Scott Stricklin discussed the potential of a matchup with the Gators.
"Look at Florida up and down that lineup and that pitching staff, it's just unbelievably talented,'' Stricklin said. "It's a daunting task in front of us. It's still possible. We're still here."
So are the Gators. And to extend their stay, they will rely on Randall, who is tied for second in school history with 28 career wins.
He talked with O'Sullivan at Sunday's practice about Kent State's lineup, anchored by senior shortstop Jimmy Rider (.362, 29 2Bs, 6 HRs, 57 RBIs).
Hudson will stick with what helped him become a seventh-round pick of the Tigers in the MLB amateur draft earlier this month: a smart approach on the mound, pinpoint control and a mixture of sinking pitches that keep Florida's infielders busy.
"He's our guy right now,'' Fontana said.
"They are a real solid club one through nine,'' said Randall. "That's why they are here. I'm just going to stay with my game plan and see what we can do.
"Of course we're all bummed. Losses are going to happen and it's double-elimination for a reason. We have that postseason playoff caliber type of team, and I feel comfortable."
If he can make Kent State's lineup uncomfortable, the Gators could be moving on.