“The preparation was a little different,” Rodriguez said. “I had to warm up like a starter and do everything like a starter. Once I got ready for the game, I just took the mentality that it was me coming out of the bullpen.”
There wasn’t much doubt Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan was going to bring Rodriguez back when the game was restarted on Tuesday since he threw just 11 pitches Monday night. The biggest pitch of his outing came in the fifth inning after starting pitcher Karsten Whitson was pulled after 4.1 innings.
The Commodores had runners on first and second with All-SEC first baseman Aaron Westlake at the plate. Rodriguez struck Westlake out on a slider to end the only inning where Vanderbilt managed more than one base runner.
“He has been like that a lot for us this year,” said O’Sullivan, after the Gators set a school record of 52 wins. “He may not get the notoriety that others do, but the guys in our locker room know how good and valuable he is. I’ve said before that I think he has a chance to pitch in the big leagues for a long time. Today was an extra special day for him.”
Rodriguez allowed a one-out walk to Connor Harrell in the seventh inning, but that was the only base runner in 3.1 innings of work on Tuesday. In his 4.1-inning total outing, Rodriguez struck out seven hitters, four lefties and three righties.
He used the changeup to keep right-handers honest, but it was his cutter and slider that gave the left-handed hitters fits. He started the slider down the middle, looking like a fastball out of his hand, but it dove out of the strike zone after the hitters started their swings.
“He was working the outer third of the plate with his cutter and slider,” the left-handed Westlake said. “He kept us off balance. He’s a good pitcher and we’ll tip our cap to him, but we’ll get him next time though.”
The Florida offense came with one swing of the bat. Nolan Fontana started the fourth inning with a one-out walk and moved to third base when Mike Zunino reached on an infield single and a throwing error by Vanderbilt starting pitcher Grayson Garvin.
Garvin hung a 2-1 slider to Tucker, and the left-handed hitter launched it over the bullpen behind the right field wall. It was the second home run in TD Ameritrade Park history.
“I’m just trying to slow things down,” Tucker said. “I knew with a guy on third and less than two outs, Garvin is competitive and would give me his best stuff. He’s got a real good fastball. I was looking for a fastball but a breaking ball wouldn’t surprise me.”
The Gators got a good start out of Whitson. The freshman has struggled some in the middle innings during starts this year, so when he got into the jam in the fifth inning, so O’Sullivan had a quick hook and went to Steven Rodriguez.
Whitson lasted 4.1 innings, allowing four hits, one run, one walk and five strikeouts.
“I was trying to pitch low in the zone,” Whitson said. “I was trying to have quick innings. It was obviously going to be a low scoring game. I was just trying to keep us in it. My slider was a little low the first couple innings, but I did a good job to change my sights and bring it up a little bit.”
His biggest inning was the fourth. After Tucker put the Gators on the board with a three-run homer, Whitson cruised through the fourth on only 11 pitches to keep the momentum in the Florida dugout.
Vanderbilt will now play North Carolina at 7 p.m. EST Wednesday in an elimination game. The winner will play Florida at 2 p.m. EST Friday. If the Gators win Friday, they will advance to the championship series.
If North Carolina or Vanderbilt beats Florida on Friday, the teams will play again on Saturday, with the winner earning a spot in the championship series.
Click here to find out the latest news, notes and rumors about your favorite baseball team.