HOOVER, Ala. -- A snoozer turned into a heart-stopper in the blink of an eye.
The Vanderbilt Commodores looked lifeless for six innings in Saturday's semifinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament, but with the game on the line in the ninth inning, they sprang to life. Austin Maddox, the normally dependable closer for Florida, came apart with only three outs separating the Gators from a shot at a seventh SEC title.
Down one run in the ninth inning, the Commodores pulled off a squeeze bunt for the tying game-tying run, slapped a single off shortstop Nolan Fontana’s glove for another, and then for good measure stole home for insurance. By the time the head-spinning frame was over, Vanderbilt had all it needed to beat Florida, 8-6, and advance to the championship game against Mississippi State on Sunday.
Florida did its best to answer in the home half of the ninth, scoring three runs and loading the bases with two outs before Vanderbilt pulled its closer. Drew VerHagen came on and was able to get the final out to seal the Gators’ fate.
By the time the ninth inning was over, seven runs, 10 hits and a triple steal colored the close of the game as one of the most exciting in SEC history.
A subdued Kevin O’Sullivan said he was disappointed with the finish but tipped his cap to his team for continuing to fight.
“I thought it was a really well-played game by both team,” the Gators head coach said after the game. “Obviously we kind of gave it away in the ninth.
“Nobody likes to lose, but I’m glad it happened this week and not the next.”
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin called it an “emotional game.”
“It was as big a ninth inning as we’ve played all year,” Corbin said. “We held it together. [Florida] was very tough to put away.”
The Gators looked to be in control after withstanding an early run by Vanderbilt. UF rallied from down two runs to take the lead in the fourth inning on a Fontana RBI single.
Despite a rocky start from Karsten Whitson, the UF bullpen held it together for more than five innings without allowing a run before the blow up in the ninth. Whitson wasn’t his normal self on the hill against the Commodores, running into trouble early and often. The righty gave up three runs on five hits and was forced to leave after just 2.1 innings of work. He entered the game a perfect 3-0 with a 3.07 ERA.
Greg Larson was able to steady the ship in relief, pitching four scoreless innings. Steven Rodriguez was the perfect bridge to Maddox, tossing 1.2 innings of scoreless baseball.
“That happens,” Larson said of Maddox’s troubles in the ninth. “They have some guys that can run. Hopefully he’ll learn from it.”
Vanderbilt starter Kevin Ziomek didn’t last much longer than his counterpart. He threw just 2.2 innings before handing things off to the bullpen. He gave up three earned runs on four hits and a walk.
Designated hitter Brian Johnson led all Gators with four RBIs. He shrugged off back-to-back hitless games and went 4-for-5 against Vanderbilt.
Florida will learn where it’s seeded in the NCAA tournament on Monday.