BASEBALL: MSU rallies past Florida 5-4

Mississippi State second baseman Jeffrey Rea was instrumental in helping the Bulldogs rally to a 6-5 victory over eleventh ranked Florida Sunday in Gainesville. Rea scored the first and game winning runs, as Florida saw its opportunity for a one and a half game lead over Tennessee remain at one half game.

Rea tripped the Gators from the second pitch of the game. The Nettleton, Mississippi native hit a ball to first base, where Florida first baseman Matt LaPorta uncharacteristically lost the handle. Starter Tommy Boss quickly grabbed the loose ball, but couldn't beat Rea to the bag. Third baseman Ed Easley hit Boss' next delivery into left field, and the Bulldogs were in business. Two batters later clean-up man Thomas Berkery perfectly fulfilled his job description with a three-run blast into the left field bleachers, giving State a 3-0 lead.

Florida (34-18, 17-10) scored two runs in the bottom half of the second to cut the MSU lead to a single run. Right fielder Brian LeClerc led off the inning with a double to right. He scored five pitches later on Brandon McArthur's double which bounced off of the warning track in center field and over the wall for a ground rule double. Three batters later, designated hitter Stephen Barton ripped a double to right as well, scoring McArthur. Three of Florida's four doubles on the day landed about 25 feet from the warning track near the right field line.

Rea led off the third for Mississippi State (33-18, 12-14) with another ground ball to LaPorta. This time the sophomore fielded it cleanly and ran to the bag for the out. Boss struck out Easley, and it appeared the Gators were in good shape. However, first baseman Brad Jones hit the next pitch into center field for a single, and advanced to second on a wild pitch. He scored two pitches later, on Berkery's single to left field. The Bulldogs now led 4-2.

"They're a tough team, Mississippi State". catcher Brian Jeroloman said. "Coach Polk has a great plan and players who never give up, just like the Florida Gators. We're taught to battle from the first to the ninth inning until the final out is made. We did that today and so did they".

The Gators began the third with a single from Dickey and ball four on a full count by Adam Davis. LaPorta rocketed Mississippi State starter Jon Crosby's next pitch about a mile high and deep to center. However, there was absolutely no wind and LaPorta's ball fell short of the wall. Had there been even a slight wind the Gators might have taken the lead. As it happened, LaPorta flew out, Brian LeClerc struck out, and Rea hauled in McArthur's liner to second. The Gators stranded the leadoff runners.

Catcher Brian Jeroloman made certain Florida wouldn't come up empty in the fourth. The West Palm Beach native belted a solo shot over the right-center fence to lead off the inning. Shortstop Justin Tordi followed with a single to left. MSU Coach Ron Polk lifted Crosby for reliever Jamie Gant, who promptly walked Barton and Florida leadoff hitter Jeff Corsaletti, before taking a seat for the remainder of his Florida vacation. Polk then called upon sophomore right hander Mike Valentine.

Gavin Dickey ripped Valentine's 0-2 pitch toward second base. Rea again came to the rescue, beautifully snatching the ball away from bouncing into center field, touching the bag, and wheeling to first to get barely get Dickey. Tordi scored on the play, but the Gators had two quick outs, and Davis followed with a pop to foul territory that was hauled in by, you guessed it, Rea.

Boss retired the Bulldogs on four pitches in the fifth.

Valentine hit LaPorta with a pitch to start the bottom of the fifth. Two batters later, Jeroloman collected his second hit of the day, a single to right. Tordi followed with his second hit of the day scoring LaPorta. Tordi laid down a beautiful bunt into no man's land. The hit gave the Gators a 5-4 advantage. Sadly though, Florida had the bases loaded and was unable to punch another run across the plate. Barton hit the ball back to the Valentine, who tossed the ball home for the force. Corsaletti followed with a ground ball to third baseman Ed Easley, who threw him out at first. It was an extremely unusual series for Corsaletti, who went hitless, 0-11.

Leaving men on with the bases loaded wasn't unique to Florida. The Bulldogs loaded the bases on three consecutive singles in the top of the sixth. Berkery hit a single to center that ended the day for Tommy Boss. Coach Pat McMahon went to freshman right hander Michael Branham. The Tampa Jesuit graduate gave up a single to Corley and a bunt single to Joseph Hunter.

McMahon again went to the pen. Senior southpaw Mike Pete came on with none out and the base loaded to quickly strike out pinch hitters Joe McCaskill and Brian LaNinfa. Pete needed just eight pitches to draw a big round of applause from the crowd of 2,549 as he exited the game in favor of right hander Darren O'Day, who also needed just four pitches to strike out shortstop Mike Rutledge and get the Gators out of the jam.

Valentine handcuffed Florida during the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings. The Midlothian, Virginia native didn't allow a base runner and needed just 23 pitches to send the Gators back to the dugout.

Corley led off the Mississippi State eighth with a single to left field. Hunter followed with a bunt back to the mound that O'Day threw into center field trying to keep Corley from advancing. It was O'Day's sixth error in 23 chances. O'Day then struck out McCaskill on three straight pitches for the first out. McMahon went with the lefty/lefty matchup, which worked to perfection, as Steven Porter came on and got LaNinfa to hit a sharp ground ball to Tordi for the 6-4-3 double play.

With Florida holding a slim 5-4 lead, McMahon went to his closer Connor Falkenbach in the top of the ninth to close out the game. Rutledge greeted Falkenbach with a single to center. Polk called on Ben Grisham (the nephew of writer John Grisham) to pinch run for Rutledge. Rea followed with a single to right field. Easley sacrificed the runners into scoring position. Falkenbach then walked Jones intentionally hoping for the double play ball. However, Berkery hit a high chopper to Tordi, who threw on to Davis for the force at second. Grisham scored on the play to tie the game at 5-5. Corley then hit a ground ball to Florida third baseman Matt Gaski, who one hopped the throw to LaPorta at first for the third out. Rea scored the game winning run on the play.

"In the short game, all that you've go to do from a hitter's standpoint, you just have to put the ball in play, and Berkery did a great job of that" Jeroloman said. "That's all you've got to do is put the ball in play, and you never know what can happen. You noticed that the other day, when I hit my groundball. Put the ball into play, you never know what can happen".

In Florida's final at bat, Davis bunted on with one out, but LaPorta's deep fly to right was caught by Corley. Davis was then caught trying to steal second base to get into scoring position.

"We had a lot of chances during the game" Davis said. "We just had to hit the ball on the ground and get a run in, but we didn't do that. Having a chance to take a sweep, any chance you can you've got to try to do that. We didn't do it. It hurts, but we've got to keep rolling"

Florida took the series 2-1 and will play Stetson University on Wednesday night at The Mac.

As always, the final weekend in conference play will determine the SEC Champion. The Gators (34-18, 17-10) must beat Vanderbilt (32-18, 13-14) in Nashville. Georgia travels to The Volunteer State to play Tennessee (36-16, 16-10). Louisiana State (35-17, 16-11) travels to Starkville to play Mississippi State.

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