Gators drop SEC Tournament title game

The Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game came down to one pitch. Florida reliever Ryan Harris left a fastball up in the strike zone and Sean McMullen hit a long two-run homer that proved to be the difference, as LSU beat the Gators 2-0 to win its fifth SEC Tournament title in the last seven years.

"Great game. That's what championship games look like," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "It was crisp on both sides. Both teams played outstanding defense, the pitching was great on both sides. It just comes down to one pitch. But I'm really pleased with how we played this week. After losing the first one, we played well and battled. It's good to finally be done with the SEC schedule. Now we can play somebody else."

The two-run home run spoiled a great outing by Karsten Whitson. It was the best start for the redshirt junior since his freshman season in 2001 when he was named National Freshman Pitcher of the Year. After battling arm issues over the last two years, Whitson hasn't been effective this season.

He threw six shutout innings on Sunday against an LSU team that came into the day averaging over 12 runs in its last seven games.

Whitson's only real jam came in the sixth inning. He gave up back-to-back singles to start the inning before the Tigers bunted both runners into scoring position. O'Sullivan elected to intentionally walk McMullen to load the bases with one out. Kade Scivicque made the strategy pay off for Florida, rolling into a double play to end the threat.

"I felt good in the bullpen," Whitson said. "I had three pitches working. I felt like if I could go out there and execute, get ahead early, I could have success today. I was able to do that for six innings, keep the ball on the ground and make pitches when I needed to."

Whitson was pulled after hitting the leadoff batter in the seventh inning. Ryan Harris relieved him and got through the inning unscathed before allowing the two-out, two-run homer in the eighth inning.

Freshmen Tyler Deel and Dane Dunning combined to throw a perfect ninth inning in the first action for both at the SEC Tournament.

But Whitson's outing stole the headlines on the pitching staff. Florida felt good about its depth on the pitching staff when Whitson wasn't ready to handle a role. After six strong innings on Saturday, he might be a factor in the NCAA Tournament.

"He threw the ball good," O'Sullivan said. "We had a good talk last night. I feel as good about this team moving forward as you possibly can. We extended some guys and then get another guy throw the ball well for six innings in Karsten.

"I'm pleased with how he threw the ball. We need that from him. I've always said that if we're going to reach our destination and our goals that he's going to be a big part of it. Today was a great step in the right direction."

The Florida offense was held to two hits -- one each for Braden Mattson and Buddy Reed. The Gators did work five walks and hit multiple balls hard at LSU defenders. Florida hitters struck out just three times.

The Gators had the leadoff runner reach base in the third and fourth innings, only to have a double play erase the lead runner. It happened again in the ninth inning.

The offensive production wasn't what Florida wanted, but the Gators leave Hoover playing really well as they head into the NCAA Tournament.

"I like this team," O'Sullivan said. "It's a gritty team, a tough team. There's a lot to be said about playing the most difficult schedule in the country. We won the regular season and they battled back. I'm really pleased with how we played. The real stuff starts next week."

Florida placed three players on the All-Tournament Team -- center fielder Harrison Bader, third baseman Josh Tobias and Whitson.

The Gators will bus home to Gainesville on Sunday night and await the NCAA Tournament bracket that will be announced at 12 p.m. on Monday. The NCAA did announce the 16 host sites on Sunday night, and Florida was selected as one.


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