Now the Bulldogs (38-24) and national #2 seed Gators (49-17) will return to Perry Field for a 1:00et Sunday game, with the winner advancing to the College World Series. It means an unranked, unseeded Mississippi State squad is suddenly a single success away from maybe the most unlikely Omaha appearance in program history.
And all, or at least mostly, because by-the-book Coach John Cohen listened to an assistant, his hitter, and just his own private hunch.
"If you're a coach in the SEC your whole life is rolling the dice!" quipped Cohen. He could afford humor because everything worked out so unexpected well in the bottom of the ninth inning, when by all rights the Bulldogs could have been headed home.
Florida spent most of the afternoon keeping State's offense under near-total control, and even when the Dogs broke out for a pair of seventh-inning scores the Gators had a prompt answer. With a stocked bullpen and a couple of batters due up in the ninth that had sputtered for contact, much less hits, the home portion of the 4,223 crowd was certain of the outcome.
Or they were until 3B Jarrod Parks, handcuffed in his first three at-bats, grounded hard and deep to the left side with Florida shortstop Nolan Fontana only able to glove the ball. The Gator coaches immediately called for lefthander Rodrigues to replace righty Nick Maronde. This got MSU coaches thinking, hard. Because even though Vickerson has been their best extra-base threat for the last month, the matchup wasn't promising, percentage-wise.
So Vickerson was ordered to lay one down. "To be honest I was a little upset about it!" the senior second baseman said. "But that's alright, I can bunt, too." Besides, Vickerson added, he had been beaten twice already this season by Rodrigues, in an April home game and a SEC Tournament matchup. Then, assistant coach Nick Mingione had a suggestion while the reliever warmed up.
"He came over and said what do you think about giving me a strike? And we changed it up," Vickerson said. Cohen liked the idea, but liked something else more. "Nick had a look in his eye, ‘I definitely want to swing here'. And I'm a big believer in letting a player make that decision."
Since he just had the one chance to hack—it would have been back to sacrificing the second pitch—Vickerson was silently begging. "I said I hope I get a pitch to hit here, if it was a nasty pitch I'd have ended up bunting." Against all odds Rodrigues obliged with a fast fastball that surprised Vickerson…but not to much to slow his perfect swing.
"I didn't think I'd got it up enough," Vickerson said, but "I knew it wasn't getting caught. I didn't see it go out, I heard it hit the back fence and saw everybody come out on the field. That's when I knew." So did a completely stunned home team and home crowd as sure victory vanished behind leftfield. It was Vickerson's eighth homer of the season, tying for the team lead, and his second of the postseason.
It also made a winner of the day's real hero, relief pitcher Caleb Reed. Normally a closer, the junior righthander got the call midway of the fourth inning to replace starter Nick Routt. All he did was put in 5.1 innings, matching his second-longest winning relief stint of the season, and limit the big-swinging Gators to a single run on four hits, a walk, and two strikeouts. Oh, and get a win—not just his first of the season but his first in three college seasons.
Much like the late-game choice to stick with Vickerson as usual, Cohen admitted temptation to replace Reed after 20 batters-faced, two more Gators on bases, and the one-run deficit. "But Caleb wanted the baseball there," and the coach again let his player make the choice. Reed (1-1) rewarded him with one more out setting the bottom-of-inning stage.
Routt worked the first 3.2 innings with two runs on seven hits, no walks and no strikeouts. Ironically his sophomore season had ended on this field in a March conference game when the lefthander lasted just 2.0 innings before elbow issues sidelined him well into 2011. Though he didn't go quite twice as long this time, Routt didn't allow Florida to exert the sort of offensive control as they had in Friday's 11-1 romp.
In fact it wasn't until the third inning the Gators got on their scoreboard. A Cody Dent grounder sped up on the skip and caught SS Jonathan Ogden in the face for a leadoff hit. Dent made third on a fly ball that evaded the glove of RF Jaron Shepherd and scored off a Fontana sacrifice-fly. Ogden did rob Dog-killer Mike Zunino with a leaping stab to save another run. An inning later Josh Adams lifted one in leadoff that wasn't going to be caught' it cleared rightfield on a string for the home run and 2-0 lead.
Routt had two more on bases and two outs when Reed was brought in to face the top of UF's order. He stranded both with unintended help as, running from second, Gator Daniel Pigott collided with a grounder off Bryson Smith's bat to end the inning. Keeping it just 2-0 was a success in itself.
Or would have been had not UF starter Karsten Whitson been so dominant, putting up six scoreless innings and stranding the only two Dogs to reach. The freshman righty showed how he had earned a 8-0 record to this point. "I think he just mixed up a lot of pitches," said CF C.T. Bradford. "He threw a little cutter to the right-handers and worked the changeup to the lefthanders, and he was throwing that fastball pretty well. That's what made him effective."
Until the seventh, when after outing Parks to lead off Whitson gave up an infield single to Vickerson, almost identical to the one Parks would provide later. Shepherd got two strikes behind before yanking a grounder just past the diving first baseman. Florida didn't gamble but replaced Whitson with Tommy Toledo, to match up with Cody Freeman.
The Bulldog DH had struggled in the postseason, 2-of-18 to that point, and had been robbed of a double by a fine rightfield catch earlier. This time he worked the count to 3-1 and with Shepherd on the move grounded again through the right side opened up. Vickerson came across for the first State score, then LF Brent Brownlee tied things up with his single into centerfield.
Florida had done almost nothing against Reed to then, with just a two-out plunking in the sixth. The meat of their order was up for the eighth though and Zunino golfed it high and long and, fortunately, to the only place in the field that could contain his drive. Bradford jumped for it on the unfamiliar track and missed, for a leadoff double. Two outs later Zunino was on third base as Reed got another deep fly ball to center that Bradford, playing in a little more than usual, couldn't catch up to. The hit rolled to the fence for a triple and while Ogden made a fabulous running save of a sinking pop to end the inning, down but just by the one run.
Which proved close enough in the end. Toledo got the MSU nine-batter in the eighth before Maronde took over for two more outs. He was set for the save, until Parks and Vickerson combined to spoil his day and bring Bulldogs pouring out on the field to celebrate a tied series.
"Florida is not going to give you anything," said Cohen, who ought to know given his two years as a Gator assistant. "You have to beat Florida. That's what we had to do today. They made great plays defensively. Their starting pitching was outstanding today, Maronde came in and did an unbelievable job for them." Just not quite enough of a job to preserve a win for Whitson, who had two runs on four hits, six strikeouts, a walk, and no decision. That went to Rodrigues (3-2).
Smith led the UF offense with three hits but scored nor drove in scores, while both Zuninio and Adams had two safeties. Vickerson was the lone Dog with a pair of hits, scoring twice and of course driving in the game-tyer and –winner. Florida out-hit State 11 to seven but left nine runners unscored.
"Sometimes it comes down to one swing," said Cohen. This time the Bulldogs got that swing. Based on how the rest of this season has gone, the coach is expecting Sunday's all-or-nothing situation to play out in a similar fashion. "It's a great win for our program to keep moving forward. But the job is not over, tomorrow is a huge day. I'd be shocked out of my mind if our kids don't give us the same effort as today."
Vickerson agrees. "Tomorrow is going to be a grind just like today, so I don't think we have an edge," he said, since both teams have gotten used to SEC Sunday rubber games. And in NCAA play, he and his teammates agree, momentum is only what happened on the last pitch.
"But we're going to go out tomorrow and give our best effort," said Bradford. "And I feel we'll be just fine."