Saturday, June 1, 1996
University of Florida baseball players say nothing that Brad Wilkerson does anymore amazes them.
But those not familiar with him before Saturday — which included most of the 16,064 College World Series fans at Rosenblatt Stadium and a national television audience — still may not believe what the freshman from Owensboro, Ky., did to Florida State in Florida's 5-2 victory.
As a right fielder in the sixth inning, Wilkerson survived a collision with a teammate to catch a ball against the fence.
As a hitter in the seventh inning, he drilled a two-out grand-slam home run to give Florida the lead for good.
As a pitcher in the eighth inning, he came on in relief and struck out FSU's cleanup hitter with the bases loaded to end a threat.
Wilkerson added a perfect ninth inning of pitching to earn his sixth save of the season, give himself a 19th birthday present and send the second- and third-ranked Gators (49-16) into a Bracket Two winner's game on Monday.
"Ho-hum, huh?" Florida Coach Andy Lopez joked. "He's quite a young man. He's hitting .400 and batting third on a program that is nationally ranked, but he handles it all real well."
The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted Wilkerson in the 13th round last summer, but they wanted him to concentrate solely on pitching. So the 6-foot, 193-pound left-hander took his sackful of skills to Florida.
"Days like this are why I went to college," Wilkerson said. "I wanted to be able to hit and pitch.
"Coming in from the field to the mound didn't bother me. I've been doing it all year. I'm used to it."
Florida State Coach Mike Martin has seen Wilkerson's tricks before, and was left shaking his head in respect Saturday after the fourth- and sixth-ranked Seminoles fell to 51-16.
"It looked like 'The Brad Wilkerson Show,' " Martin said. "The guy comes out of right field and made a nice play early. He hit the grand slam home run. Then he comes into the game in a crucial situation and strikes out a very, very tough hitter."
Wilkerson nearly didn't get a chance to be the hero because of the pitching of Florida State starter Randy Choate, whose 15 victories tied him for the national lead.
Choate threw five shutout innings. A wild spell in the sixth — a walk and two wild pitches in combination with a single and a sacrifice fly — got Florida a run off of Choate, but the Seminoles still led 2-1 going to the bottom of the seventh.
In that inning, Florida's first two hitters grounded out weakly. Then Choate walked pinch hitter Sean Walsh. Pinch runner Brian Ogle raced to second on a wild pitch. After another walk, Choate left and reliever Chuck Howell walked Gator second baseman Mark Ellis to load the bases.
FSU changed pitchers again, bringing in freshman Zach Diaz to face Wilkerson, who had struck out and walked twice.
With a 1-1 count, Wilkerson said he looked for an off-speed pitch from Diaz. What came to the plate was a hanging changeup. Wilkerson transformed that offering into a screaming liner over the right-field wall for a 5-2 Florida lead.
"I wasn't expecting that good of a pitch," he said. "I was just thinking about a base hit so I could get the tying run in."
After Wilkerson gave Florida the lead, the Gators also asked him to protect it.
In the top of the eighth, Florida State used a single and a walk with two outs to mount a threat. Wilkerson came on and hit All-American J.D. Drew with a pitch to load the bases. That made FSU cleanup hitter Jeremy Morris, who had a .381 average with 13 homers, the potential go-ahead run.
But Wilkerson struck him out looking, which ended Morris' 16-game hitting streak.
"I'd rather pitch with the bases loaded than hit," Wilkerson said. "Hitting is probably the toughest thing in sports. I feel more comfortable as a pitcher, but I like to do both."
His relief work made a winner of Florida starter John Kaufman (11-4), who allowed just five hits in 7 2/3 innings.
Lopez said he never gave up hope that his Gators, who have won nine games in their final at-bat this season, would rally.
"I've learned my lesson," he said. "I don't panic with these guys. If we're down by a couple late in the game, we still find a way to get it done.
"It's tough on the stomach. But other than that, it's all right."
Nervous stomachs were common on the Florida team bus Saturday morning, Lopez said. The Gators have 18 freshmen and sophomores on their postseason roster. No one on the team has played in the CWS before.
— Lee Barfknecht