"I don't know what it is, but we've been able to score one or two more runs than Vanderbilt this year," Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan said after his team beat Vanderbilt for the fifth time in six games this season. "I agree with (Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin's) statement the other day, and I do think both teams are evenly matched.
"I'm very proud of the way we played though. That thing could've spiraled out of control."
Vanderbilt tied the score at four in the eighth inning, but Florida right fielder Daniel Pigott bounced back with a leadoff single in the bottom of the eighth. That's when Vanderbilt's issues fielding bunts came into play. Cody Dent dropped down a bunt but Commodores third baseman Jason Esposito threw wide of first base to allow Dent to reach.
Gray was sent back to the mound for the eighth inning with his pitch count already over 120. He left after mishandling the bunt with a pitch count of 132.
"I don't care what the number of pitches was," Corbin said. "He wanted to go back out there, and that's all there is to it. You're not going to take the ball out of his hands, or else you're going to fight him. You give him the ball and let him pitch."
After coming into the at-bat 0-for-4, Preston Tucker singled off the left field wall against left-hander Corey Williams to score one run because the runners held to tag up. Mike Zunino followed with a strikeout, but Dent scored from third on a wild pitch. It ended up being the two runs Florida would need to clinch its spot in the championship series, but it was fueled by the misplayed bunts from Vanderbilt.
"We had the right athlete on the mound," Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. "Sonny has taken care of so many short balls during the season, but they found a way to bunt the ball into difficult triangles. We weren't able to get an out from it, and that was the toughest part. It made it difficult. They executed the small ball pretty well."
Florida held a 4-1 lead after the sixth inning when O'Sullivan pulled starting pitcher Alex Panteliodis after 86 pitches. The Gators then ran through five relievers in the next two innings, playing matchups while still trying to have the best arms in the game.
Vanderbilt scored two runs in the seventh on an RBI single from Connor Harrell and Brian Johns worked a bases loaded walk. In the eighth inning, Vanderbilt loaded the bases again and scored when Florida reliever Austin Maddox hit Conrad Gregor with a pitch. It was almost worse as Harrell lined out to a diving Nolan Fontana at shortstop for the Gators, and Maddox induced a ground ball to get out of the eighth inning.
Maddox allowed a two-out double in the ninth inning but got a fly ball from Curt Casali to secure the Florida win.
It was a tale of two different innings for Maddox, but the Gators knew they needed to get him on the mound at some point after a sprained foot kept him out three weeks.
"We had confidence in him," O'Sullivan said. "He might be one of our most competitive players. I don't know if there was a perfect time to put him out there. It was one of those things where he hadn't pitched in a while, but for us to have an opportunity to win this thing, he's going to be a major factor in it."
The Gators put the first crooked number on the board in the fourth inning. Josh Adams and Tyler Thompson reached on back-to-back one-out singles. Cody Dent walked two batters later to load the bases, and Nolan Fontana drove a two-run single up the middle to give the Gators a 3-1 lead.
Fontana came into the game 6-for-32 (.188) in the NCAA Tournament, but after lining out and walking in his first at-bat, he felt like he was coming out of it.
"Having a few days off helped," Fontana said. "I was jumping at the ball a little bit and needed to stay back in my stance. I worked the past couple days at staying back and trying to hit the ball back up the middle. That's what I did today (on the single)."
On the mound, Florida got just what it needed from Panteliodis. The junior gave up a solo home run to Aaron Westlake in the first inning, but that was the only run he would give up in six innings. He recorded three strikeouts and allowed just three hits without walking a batter.
The Westlake home run seemed to settle his nerves and let him locate pitches more effectively.
"I missed my spot, and he definitely got a hold of it," Panteliodis said. "Ater that, I just got into a groove. I settled down, executed pitches and started using my defense."
The benefit of Florida winning on Friday is that ace Hudson Randall can now start Monday's opener of the championship series. The series begins Monday at 8 p.m. EST.