By Andrew Olson – OnlyGators.com Contributor
Overcoming three elimination games in as many days, No. 1 seed Florida Gators (40-20) advanced to the finals of the 2014 Southeastern Conference Tournament on Saturday with a 6-5 win over the No. 9 seed Kentucky Wildcats (35-23) at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Alabama.
Florida rallied late in a back-and-forth contest with junior third baseman Josh Tobias (2/3, RBI, 2 R) knocking in the go-ahead run in the top of the eighth to pave the way for sophomore right-hander Eric Hanhold (3.1 IP, 2 H, 4 K) to collect the win in a stellar relief appearance.
The Gators looked to be in danger of getting blown out by the Wildcats in the early going, but Kentucky was simply unable to pile on the runs and put the game out of reach. A lineout double play killed UK’s momentum in the first inning, as did leaving the bases full in the second. UF was fortunate to only be down 3-0.
Florida responded with two runs in the top of the third off back-to-back RBIs from junior second baseman Casey Turgeon (1/4, RBI, R, BB) and sophomore shortstop Richie Martin (1/5, RBI, R). UF’s first lead came when sophomore center fielder Harrison Bader knocked in two to give the Gators a 4-3 advantage in the fifth. Bader will enter Sunday’s title game batting .625 (10-for-16) in this week’s tournament.
Freshman left-handed pitcher Kirby Snead (4.1 IP, 3 H, 2 R) kept the Wildcats tamed for more than four innings but ran into some trouble in the sixth.
That’s when Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan called on Hanhold to take over, a decision that proved to be just what UF needed. Though Hanhold allowed one inherited runner to score, spotting Kentucky a 5-4 lead, he quickly stopped the bleeding and kept UK off the board from the seventh inning onward.
This time, the Wildcats’ lead did not last long.
Bader (3/4, 3 RBI) slugged another RBI single to tie the game at 5-5. The Gators retook the lead and held on to it for good when Tobias came through with a clutch single to right field, scoring freshman left fielder Ryan Larson (1/3, R).
Florida will face No. 3 seed LSU in Sunday’s SEC Tournament Championship, which is set to for 4:30 p.m. and will air live on ESPN2. The Gators swept the Tigers (2-1, 6-2, 11-7) earlier this season in Gainesville, Florida. UF will be the home team in Hoover.