State Gets Slammed 7-5 By Big Gator Blast

It was a high fly that shouldn't have left the park. Not the batter, nor the defense, nor anyone in either dugout expected that straight-up shot off Brian Johnson's bat to exit Regions Park, stage-right. Yet it did, coming straight-down just behind the inner wall for a game-changing grand slam and first-round Florida victory over Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament.

Johnson's bases-loaded loft in the bottom of the seventh turned a 5-2 Bulldog lead into a stunning disadvantage, and keyed Florida's eventual 7-5 success. With their win the three-seeded, not to mention #3-ranked Gators (42-15) advanced to a Thursday afternoon matchup with Alabama. The sixth-seed Bulldogs (34-22) dropped immediately into the losers bracket and take on Arkansas at 9:30 a.m. in an elimination game. The two-seed Razorbacks lost 7-4 to Alabama in the opening game.

It was a frustrating finish even by 2011 standards for a Mississippi State squad that looked to have taken control in the top of the seventh. A pair of separate scores had staked them to a three-run lead, and the Bulldog bullpen had a variety of arms ready for relief matchups. A fine plan on paper…

…just not in execution. "I thought we were going to be able to throw it in the strike zone," Coach John Cohen said. "And we just didn't do it. That's the thing that has carried us this year in the seventh, eighth, and ninth inning."

Not this time though. A pair of relievers proven reliable in the regular season failed their initial postseason test as Taylor Stark and Luis Pollorena gave Florida's offense all the openings they could use. Stark walked the first two batters on, then Pollorena surrendered a bases-loading single and the fluke fly.

"That was pretty much the ball game," said Cohen. "You just can't hand a team like Florida those kinds of opportunities, and we certainly did."

The coach included other Gator gifts as well, pointing to the seven total walks issued by three of State's four hurlers. Adding in a hit-batsman in the UF eight inning, and five of the Gators who scored had reached first base without swinging a stick. "The whole story was walks," said Cohen. "We just didn't challenge the strike zone as much as we should." And if Florida finished with a modest, by their standards, nine total hits, the one by Johnson made up for much. Not coincidentally it came when Pollorena was trying to locate after a series of free passes by others.

Which, Cohen noted, "When you miss big it gives tremendous confidence to the hitter. And we had some big misses."

All the more frustrating was how Johnson should have missed. Stark had entered in the bottom of the sixth with a 3-2 lead and a tying Gator on base. He was able to strand a pair that frame and return with the larger lead. But he plunked Bryson Smith and walked Preston Tucker. The MSU coaching staff didn't think lefthander Pollorena was the ideal matchup for righthander and top UF batter Mike Zunino, but righty relief ace Caleb Reed had worked seven innings Saturday against LSU. Plus, Cohen said, the inning had gone critical too fast to get Reed really ready.

"The matchup wasn't what we were looking for but we knew they had a lefthander on deck, so we were going to leave (Pollorena) in." Plus a base was open and Zunino was 0-for-3 to then. He did single after all, on a good Pollorena pitch that nearly got past the end of the bat. "But good players get plays like that," said Cohen. They also get lucky, as Johnson did. Besides it just not seeming sufficiently struck to go long, the drive began as a foul ball tracked by RF Jaron Shepherd…only to tail back towards the field with the stiff breeze.

It was one swing of the bat, the ball starts out foul and comes back fair," Cohen said. "But the grand slam is not the issue, it's how the two guys got on second and third."

Pollorena (6-5) would give up the eighth-inning run as well, taking the loss on 1.2 innings with three runs on three hits, a walk and a strikeout. Stark was charged with two runs on his 1.0 official inning with two walks and no hits. They were both working in support of State starter Evan Mitchell, who scuffled well enough through 5.0-plus to keep his team in contention.

The freshman righty had last started April 17 at Arkansas but a strong relief showing last week at Memphis, and the short turnaround from the LSU series, gave him the ball for the first tournament day. "I was kind of anxious in the first two innings," he admitted, but said after a couple of turns confidence came. "I felt like I could get my fastball over at points. But I fell behind in a lot of counts, I needed to get my curveball more often and keep hitters off-balance."

Mitchell finished with two runs on five hits, five strikeouts, and four walks himself. Ironically he was the Dog who had Zunino's numbers with three hitless chances. "I thought Evan threw really well," Cohen said. "Be hadn't started in a while and five hits with five strikeouts was outstanding. But the four walks put us in jeopardy."

Including the first of the afternoon, a first-inning leadoff pass that Florida's Tucker turned into a RBI with his double. Though very early a 1-0 lead looked larger because Gator starter Tim Toledo belied his middling season with two good innings and five of his six strikeouts.

He might have lasted longer with a bit better fielding. CF C.T. Bradford got State's first base hit to open the third and was bunted over, with 3B Jarrod Parks plunked. With two outs 2B Nick Vickerson lifted a drive that looked pretty routine itself. But the centerfielder didn't read it well and couldn't catch up with what fell for a two-RBI triple. And a pitching change for Nick Maronde, who kept the Dogs at two for two more innings.

Meanwhile Florida tied it up in the fourth, loading the bases on a single, walk, and single to bring up order-topper Nolan Fontana with two outs. Mitchell missed for ball four to force in the lead runner, then Mitchell stranded three with a ground ball. He also got the lead back in the MSU sixth as on 2-2 Vickerson turned on Maronde.

"He just left one up over the plate," said Vickerson of a solo shot over both walls in leftfield, his seventh home run of the senior season. Greg Larson ended that inning and was still on the hill the next inning as C West Thigpen singled and Bradford reached on an infield hit. Parks dueled Larson until taking his second plunking, loading all bases. Reliever Steven Rodriguez came in to match with Shepherd, who scored Thigpen with a ground ball to the right side. Parks slid hard and cleanly to prevent a double-play.

A wild pitch brought Bradford in for the 5-2 advantage that looked really good at the time. At least, until Johnson's drive was gone with the wind along with Mississippi State's bid for a big win. UF first baseman Austin Maddox didn't do a lot at the plate but he threw a one-hit (DH Cody Freeman) ninth inning to get the fourth save of his season.

After an impressive debut Dog season in middle relief and two SEC wins as a starter, Pollorena's problems were surprising. Not even a rough outing last Thursday against LSU cost any club faith in the lefthander, and while Cohen would have liked a rested Reed in the seventh a hard-throwing Pollorena was a percentage call too.

"Strikes. Strikes. That's what we were thinking," Cohen said. "He was our best strike-thrower in a big ballpark." But it was a couple of stroked strikes that turned everything around after all. Cohen also said Stark might have been hampered by turning an ankle a few days ago stepping on a ball in practice.

"I'm really pleased with the effort our kids gave," said Cohen. "I thought they kept competing and doing everything you have to do to get back in the game." They just didn't do enough on the mound to prevent Florida from staying in and ultimately taking over the game.

Now the Bulldogs have to turn around quickly and get back to the park for a very early do-or-die match with the Razorbacks. Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson debated over the game-two pitching plans before settling on junior Nick Routt. It might look a curious call given how the lefthander was hit, hard, at Arkansas with eight hits and six runs in 3.0 innings.

But that was when Routt (2-2, 3.83) was still building up strength after his long 2010 layoff and delayed 2011 return. His outings since have been better, and State hopes the Razorbacks aren't as free swinging in a larger yard. Arkansas will start D.J. Baxendale, who was their top arm early in the season before an injury. He did not pitch in the MSU series. For their part the Bulldogs largely reckon they are still in good NCAA bid shape. Even a loss to Florida will only improve their power-rating for that matter, though they would be even more comfortable with some losses by %%MATCH_24%% and %%MATCH_23%% both. But upperclassman Vickerson claims NCAA talk is not first in MSU minds at the moment.

"Yeah, I don't think we're thinking about it yet. We're still trying to win this SEC Tournament."

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