State Season Falls Two Frames Short Of Series

They began the day a win away from a most utterly unexpected College World Series berth. They even made the seventh inning stretch with a two-run lead on a suddenly fearful Florida. But it was all still just a little bit farther than the Bulldogs could reach. "In my head I was like, if they win this game they're going to earn it," said Nick Vickerson. "And that's what they did."

The Gators did just that. No sooner had Mississippi State taken a stunning 6-4 lead in the top of Sunday's seventh inning, than Florida responded in the bottom with three runs off a single swing of Preston Tucker's bat. The Florida rightfielder went after a down-changeup, right where Bulldog reliever Caleb Reed wanted to place the pitch, and lined it out a little left of centerfield.

Florida added another run, on another home run, in their eighth inning as well for the final margin of 8-6 and victory in the NCAA super regional rubber game. Thus the Gators (50-19 and the national #2 seed) will continue their season by advancing to the College World Series; while unseeded Mississippi State ended their otherwise remarkable postseason run 38-25.

Not that the Diamond Dogs could enjoy the overview much just minutes after Vickerson, ironically enough, was the last out of the year with a drive that died on the leftfield warning track. The day before he'd been Mississippi State's hero with a two-run shot to that side for a 4-3 win to force the rubber game. Sunday, though, he and every other Dog were denied the chance for last-inning dramatics.

Not with Florida's immediate response to the serious Mississippi State challenge, after the Dogs had turned an early 4-0 deficit into a lead at the stretch-time.

"Two runs, late in the game, we still have some good guys in the pen, I thought we really had a chance," Vickerson said. "Things just didn't go our way."

Coach John Cohen could point to exactly why so. All eight of Florida's runs came on five balls that left the park, but it was the three-run blast by Tucker that ranked biggest. Or, hurt most depending on vantage point. While State could have survived a solo shot in that situation, the stage had been set for something larger.

"We just let them create an inning by walking people," Cohen said. Having just taken the startling lead, State replaced mid-reliever Taylor Stark with another righthander and freshman Daryl Norris to face the top of Florida's order. "The reason we had Daryl in the game there is he's one of our better command guys," Cohen explained. But Norris didn't have it, putting the first two Gators on via balls. At that pressure point there was only one realistic answer left.

Reed, the relief-winner on Saturday, was waved in. Never mind he had thrown 82 pitches and 5.1 innings the day before…and Reed definitely didn't mind. Because even though, as his coach said, "Caleb was on fumes" the junior righthander had been asking for the chance to do his thing again against the Gators. Besides, the coach said, "That's where the game was, I mean it was screaming ‘this is the whole game'. And it ended up being that."

Especially because Florida's biggest stick, catcher Mike Zunino, was up. He'd even hit the first of Florida's five home runs way back in the first. Yet Cohen was not that surprised when Zunino squared and bunted the tying teammates into scoring positions. Home fans were startled that the SEC Player of the Year was sacrificed, but "I think that was a great move on their part," said Cohen.

As for Tucker, the plan was to pitch very carefully and Reed did work around the plate with a 3-1 count and no objection to a bases-loading walk. Thus the changeup, down and lower than the strike zone. Just not low enough that Tucker couldn't reach it. "You figure if you throw it out of the strike zone you're going to get him to chase," Cohen said. "He just went down and got it."

Reed ended that seventh, and it was Chris Stratton giving up the eight-inning homer to Daniel Pigott for what proved the final margin as State used two more arms to finish that frame. The damage had been done though as Gator reliever Tommy Toledo was able to protect this lead, this day. Having entered in the seventh, Toledo (6-3) did allow the two hits that put State ahead temporarily with two runs charged and a couple of walks. Still he got through 2.1 total innings at the right time to pick up the decision.

Because after LF Brent Brownlee gave his team the 6-4 lead with a two-run hit, the Bulldogs didn't get anyone else on base. "I knew they were going to stay with Toledo," said Vickerson. "He'd done a really good job and obviously a righthander is tougher on me." As well as the other four righties in the last seven outs Toledo garnered.

Reed (1-2) took the loss on 1.0 inning with the one hit and one charged run, unfortunately that being the go-ahead score. Mississippi State sent no less than eight men to the mound and all were challenged by a Gator order that was back on their game.

"The deal today was we didn't throw enough strikes," Cohen said. "We had great opportunities to slam the door, all we had to do was get Florida to put balls in play. And we didn't." Not unless in play means over the fence, which the Gators were able to do early and often. It began with Zunino's first-frame shot off State starter Luis Pollorena. In the second the sophomore southpaw was tagged for a two-run homer by Pigott and solo shot from Vickash Ramjit, as Florida jumped to a 4-0 lead on longballs.

Pollorena lasted just 2.0 official with the four runs on four hits, a walk and no strikeouts. "We needed swing-and-miss there and Pollo didn't have command enough," Cohen said. "All of a sudden they're taking great swings and you have to do something quickly, especially in a ballpark that can play like it did today."

Vickerson was the only Bulldog batter able to utilize the ballpark, and in dramatic fourth-inning fashion. DH Cody Freeman and 3B Jarrod Parks singled to open the inning off Gator starter Alex Panteliodis—who had not been announced until almost 20 minutes after the normal deadline. On a 2-2 count Vickerson saw a fastball on the inner half and hammered it over both the left-centerfield fence and the taller one yards behind it. Quick as that State was within 4-3.

Panteliodis left a tying Dog on base in the fourth, but a one-out single by CF C.T. Bradford in the fifth brought in righthander Greg Larson to strand him. Meanwhile righthander Devin Jones quieted Gator bats in a three-inning stretch, though his last three-faced in the fifth tagged him very hard. Good Dog defense prevented any runs, as with Zuninon on first base Tucker drove a double into the rightfield corner. RF Jaron Shepherd hit Vickerson, who didn't even glance home but wheeled and fired in the same motion.

C Wes Thigpen was placed for the throw up the line and Zunino didn't even bother sliding, accepting the tag for an easy out.Still State wasn't able to catch up despite having a pair on an out into their sixth. Shepherd singled and was running as Brownlee swung, his grounder pulling the shortstop towards his right side so there was no chance at second. His throw to first was a tick behind Brownlee for two safe. Larson was excused for lefthander Nick Maronde, who got a one-pitch out of 1B Ryan Collins and on 2-2 coaxed a line-fly to left from SS Jonathan Ogden.

Two outs into the Bulldog seventh, Freeman dropped a double in the left-gap. Florida didn't hesitate replacing Maronde with righty Toledo. He walked Parks on four pitches, none close in what looked like an intentional pass. Toledo surely didn't intend to feed Vickerson a 2-2 fastball that the Bulldog could drop in rightfield.

Parks got home ahead of the high throw to tie the game up. With runners on corners Florida played the percentages and put Shepherd on base for a force anywhere. Brownlee negated that beautifully with a line-drive single scoring Parks and Vickerson. Suddenly as that the Bulldogs were ahead 6-4 going into the bottom of the seventh.

And, set up for heartbreak just when it seemed momentum was on State's. "You can't help but think that way," admitted Brownlee. "But you know Florida is a good hitting team so you know they're going to be back in it. I just wish it would have been the ninth."

Instead the Gators used their ensuing innings to regain control and earn their second-straight trip to Omaha, for the first time in program history. Pigott was 3-of-3 with three RBI and two runs in his first two-homer game, and the five total home runs were a team high for the season. Brownlee was 3-of-4 for State while both Freeman (2-of-5, two runs) and Vickerson (2-of-5, 4 RBI) had multi-hit games in their final Bulldog appearance. Senior Parks ended his career on a 1-of-4 day with two runs and with a .363 average.

Given all his third Mississippi State team has been through, the end of the season was quite fitting. No wonder Cohen could say "I thought this resembled the ten consecutive weekends in the SEC. This is what it's like to play in the SEC." Though, he added, "There was a little more at stake this one deal."

Enough so that tempers ran high in the mid-90s temperatures. There was a fair amount of chirping from the Gator dugout all day, and in the ninth inning on State's first out—a foul-pop by Freeman caught by the UF catcher—the Florida first baseman ran into MSU assistant Nick Mingione's extended knee coming from the coach's right side and behind. Whether or not any intent was involved there was some extended friction among the staffs with Cohen trying to calm his aides while Gator coaches expressed displeasure.

Cohen said he'd been watching the ball, not back behind the play. As for other game-day tensions, such as Florida's delay in reporting their pitcher—which it turned out State had planned for anyway with the order turned in earlier—it reflected what the day meant to everyone involved.

"I thought there were two great teams competing their hearts out. Sometimes things happen, it's all forgotten in the end."

Maybe so. What the Bulldogs, and frustrated fans, should remember is that a team no outsider expected to be a factor in SEC season, or make it to the NCAA tournament much less win a regional round and come so close to stealing a spot in the Series.

"To come here and do what we did was really special," said Vickerson.

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