Gators Reach Title Game After Emotional Day

HOOVER, Ala.- Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan knew there was a weird feeling to the day before the two teams took the field. It started out with a humbling moment as paralyzed player Jonathan Taylor returned to the Georgia dugout for the second time this season and gave the Bulldogs an emotional lift.

The Gators would take the second game 3-2 to advance to the SEC Tournament championship game on Sunday.      

"The whole day just had a weird feel from the beginning," O'Sullivan said. "It was emotional. I could feel it in myself. Usually you're getting ready to take the field and the team is getting all excited, but today was a totally different deal."   

There were a few reasons. Taylor's return to the Georgia dugout was honored by a video played on the Regions Park scoreboard. It showed the injury, when he ran into outfielder Zach Cone as the two went for a fly ball in mid-March, causing the paralysis. There were pictures of Taylor lying on the ground as the trainers made their way to him that especially stirred players and coaches on both sides.   

The video talked about the struggle and process of Taylor trying to walk again. O'Sullivan spent time in the Georgia dugout before the video talking to Taylor and Georgia student assistant coach Chase Veazey, who signed to play for the Bulldogs before breaking his neck when a car hit his scooter near the Georgia campus.   

Taylor was honored and applauded by the fans, and in situations similar, that would have been the end of it, but not on Saturday.   

Instead, the entire Florida team jogged to the Georgia bench to shake Taylor's hand and encourage him. For a ten-minute pregame session, the teams put aside a heated rivalry for the sake of class and respect.   

"That was not something that came from me," O'Sullivan said. "The players came to me and said they wanted to do it, and I just said that I thought it was a great gesture. Our leaders suggested it. It's really the least we can do."   

On the field, it didn't take long for things to get more emotional. In the first inning, Florida starting pitcher Brian Johnson was hit in the back of the head on a throw by catcher Mike Zunino, who slipped while trying to throw out a runner at second. Johnson immediately hit the ground and didn't move for almost a minute.   

"Brian is one of my best friends, so right when it happened, seeing him laying there, I was in shock for a second," shortstop Nolan Fontana said. "We found out that he's alright, and we're looking forward to going to see him after this."   

Johnson was helped onto a stretcher and taken to a local hospital. He was released after his CT scan came back normal. He was resting at the team hotel while watching the second game on television.   

When Johnson was taken off the field, the attention turned to Zunino. Right after it happened, he was visibly shaken. Georgia head coach Dave Perno spoke with Zunino on his way to check on Johnson, and his message was simple. When Taylor and Cone collided for Georgia, Perno saw the emotional toll and guilt that Cone dealt with. Without knowing the severity of Johnson's injury, Perno wanted to make sure Zunino was calm.   

"I just told (Zunino) that (Johnson) would be alright," Perno said. "That's always the guy you worry about. When I saw (Cone) and Jonathan Taylor collide, Zach was the one I was concerned about because he was wearing all the guilt. Mike is such a great player, I didn't want him to think it was his fault. You're competing, and I was just trying to comfort him."   

Second baseman Josh Adams was the next to comfort Zunino, where he stayed until play was resumed. Johnson, Adams, Zunino and Cody Dent all live together, so it was tough for them to see a close friend go through the injury.   

The Bulldogs scored two runs in the first inning, but the Florida offense responded in the bottom of the first inning with two runs of its own. Tyler Thompson, the designated hitter who took Johnson's spot, lined a two-out, two-run double to left-center field to tie the game after an inning.   

The Bulldogs would put two more runs up in the third inning on a Cone single and a Brett DeLoach sacrifice fly to put them up 4-2. After that, Florida relief pitcher Anthony DeSclafani settled in and gave the Gators what they needed out of the bullpen. He went a career high 7.2 innings, allowing seven hits, two runs and striking out four. His fastball sat in the low 90s with good sink, inducing plenty of ground balls to keep the Georgia hitters off the bases.   

The junior has been a reliever all season, but his emergence could be a shot in the arm for the Florida pitching staff. If the Gators need an extra starter for the postseason or Johnson needs to miss some time, DeSclafani could be the next starting pitcher in line.   

"Anthony was outstanding," O'Sullivan said. "He mixed his pitches well. That should really help his confidence going into the postseason. We've always thought as a coaching staff that he was one of the key guys, where if we could get him going, it would make us even better."   

The Gators scored in the fourth inning on a throwing error by Georgia third baseman Colby May, but the first game would end 4-3. The win guaranteed a record above .500 for the Bulldogs, which was necessary for them to clinch a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Georgia celebrated in a mob on the field, but this was the reason they came to Hoover. They needed three wins in the tournament and secured it to lock up their place in the NCAA Tournament.   

Game two saw the Bulldogs take a 2-0 lead after two innings. Florida starting pitcher Karsten Whitson wasn't sharp early before setting in during his outing.   

The Gators tied the game on a two-run home run from Nolan Fontana in the third inning, and the teams traded zeros until the ninth inning.   

Vickash Ramjit, who sported a fake mustache at the post game press conference, led off the ninth inning with a double to right-center field. After he was moved to third on a bunt and Cody Dent walked, Fontana hit a ground ball to the second baseman that looked like a guaranteed double play off the bat. He managed to beat the throw to first, scoring Ramjit and giving the Gators a 3-2 lead.   

"Right when I hit it, all I was thinking was "get there- get there before the ball,"" Fontana said. "I got fortunate and beat it out."   

Austin Maddox, who O'Sullivan said after the game is the team's closer, recorded his fifth save of the season while striking out two.   

Florida advances to play in its first SEC Tournament Championship since 2000. The Gators haven't won the SEC Tournament since 1991. Junior left-hander Alex Panteliodis will get the start on the mound for Florida, while Vanderbilt is expected to throw right-hander Taylor Hill.    


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