The smallest of plays had the biggest of consequences Friday, as Florida overcame an early blast and a late rally to earn a chance to compete for baseball’s national championship.
The Gators’ 6-4 victory over Vanderbilt, before 20,087 fans at TD Ameritrade Park, was their third straight at the College World Series and moved them into the best-of-three championship series.
And Florida scored its final three runs, including two in the decisive bottom of the eighth inning, in large part because of its ability to execute bunts while at the same time seeing Vanderbilt fail to defend them properly.
“They executed the small ball pretty well,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “We knew they were going to do it. We knew we could handle it. And we just didn’t.”
With the game tied at 4, the Gators’ winning rally started with Daniel Pigott’s leadoff single. Cody Dent followed with a sacrifice-bunt attempt that turned into a hit when third baseman Jason Esposito made a soft toss to first, allowing Dent to outrun it.
“I kept waiting for the ball to get there, and it never did,” Dent said. “I was just happy to get on base."
Nolan Fontana then dropped down a bunt, and pitcher Sonny Gray tried to field it barehanded and make a spinning throw to third. He didn’t field it cleanly, though, on a play ruled a hit. Gray had made a similar play, scored an error, during a Florida rally in the sixth inning and had also made the play successfully in the second inning.
Florida so respected the fielding ability of Gray, a first-round draft pick of the Oakland Athletics, that coach Kevin O’Sullivan had discussed with Fontana whether to deaden the ball close to home plate, bunt harder toward Esposito at third or even bunt toward first base — an unusual play in that situation.
“Sonny covers a lot of ground,” O’Sullivan said. “Our bunts were more towards the line, and that helped us. If they were not located, Sonny probably gets the lead runner every time — he’s that good of an athlete.”
Fontana picked bunting toward third.
“And Sonny still hopped off the mound and got to it,” Fontana said.
After a bases-loaded pop out, Preston Tucker drove in the go-ahead run on a fly-ball single to deep left field off reliever Corey Williams.
Left fielder Tony Kemp took one step in before retreating and nearly making a sliding, over-the-shoulder catch at the warning track. The ball sailed just over his glove, but Kemp managed to allow only one run to score by making a barehanded grab after the ball short-hopped the fence and throwing back to the infield in one motion.
“I was looking for a fastball up that I could elevate,” Tucker said. “The wind was blowing in, so it was going to be tough to get it over his head. All I was worried about was getting the run in from third.”
Florida got one more in. Reliever Mark Lamm struck out Mike Zunino, but the breaking ball in the dirt got away from catcher Curt Casali, allowing Dent to score on the wild pitch.
But perhaps the most exciting game so far in this CWS wasn’t over yet.
Vanderbilt’s Aaron Westlake doubled with two outs in the ninth to bring the tying run to the plate, but Casali flied out for the final out.
Florida (53-17) improved to 5-1 against the Commodores, its Southeastern Conference division rivals.
“They’ve got a great club,” O’Sullivan said. “I don’t know what it is. ... We’ve just been able to score one more run or two more runs than Vanderbilt this year.”
Vanderbilt tried to erase that trend as Westlake hit a first-inning homer, his 18th, for an early lead.
But Alex Panteliodis, a junior left-hander who had beaten the Commodores in the SEC tournament, offered few other opportunities in pitching six three-hit innings.