By Andrew Olson – OnlyGators.com baseball writer
No. 4 Florida Gators (52-18) baseball saw its season come to an end on Saturday, one game shy of advancing to the 2015 College World Series Championship Series as the Virginia Cavaliers edged UF 5-4 in a drama-filled game with multiple ties and lead changes.
Virginia jumped out to a 1-0 lead, but Florida sophomore first baseman Peter Alonso (1/3, HR, 2 RBI, R, BB) answered with a 429-foot two-run homer in the second inning, breaking his own record for the longest home run hit in the history of TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska.
The Cavs tied the game at two in the fourth inning, but junior left fielder Harrison Bader (4/5, HR, RBI, R) put the Gators up 3-2 with a solo shot in the top of the fifth, as UF was marked as the visitor on Saturday. It was the last time Florida would hold a lead this season as Virginia fought back to go up 4-3 in the bottom frame and broke a 4-4 tie with multiple hits in the seventh.
The loss is a difficult one for the Gators, which have advanced to the CWS four times in the last six seasons but never come back to Gainesville with a national title.
Florida kicked off the 2015 campaign with high expectations and preseason top 10 rankings across the board. It finished fourth overall in the Southeastern Conference during the regular season and rebounded from an opening-game loss to Arkansas in the 2015 SEC Tournament to win four straight elimination games and claim the tournament’s championship.
As the No. 4 overall national seed in the 2015 NCAA Tournament, UF hosted the Gainesville Regional and Super Regional, going undefeated (5-0) while outscoring opponents 53-12 to advance to the CWS.
In Omaha, Florida picked up a pair of wins against Miami, outscoring its in-state rivals 25-5 (15-3, 10-2). Between those victories, the Gators’ bats went cold against Cavaliers starter Brandon Waddell, and UF found itself on the short end of a 1-0 decision with its third shutout of the season forcing it into the loser’s bracket. In a Friday rematch with UVA, Florida bounced back with a 10-5 win to force a rubber match for a spot in the CWS Championship Series.
The Gators tied a CWS record when they scored 11 runs in the fourth inning on June 13 against the Hurricanes. In Wednesday’s contest against UM, UF broke three stadium records when it hit four home runs in the contest, including most in a game and longest in the park’s history. Florida, which finished with six home runs in the CWS, can also claim the most double-digit run games (three) and most runs scored (35) by any team at the park.
UF will likely be preseason favorites to return to Omaha in 2016. The Gators’ only significant holes to fill will be the departures of Bader, junior shortstop Richie Martin (0/5) and senior third baseman Josh Tobias (0/3, BB).
Here are three takeaways from Florida’s season-ending loss:
1. Missed opportunities: Despite having four lead off hitters reach safely, the Gators went a meager 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position. UF had its chances, but couldn’t come up with the big hits aside from the two homers.
2. Matchup inconsistencies: Sophomore right-handed pitcher Dane Dunning (4.2 IP, 4 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, K) was pulled in the fifth inning when lefty Matt Thaiss, who homered in the first inning, was due up with a runner on first base. Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan brought in sophomore left-handed pitcher Kirby Snead (0.1 IP, 2 H, ER) for the matchup, but Snead gave up a single to Thaiss and stayed on to pitch to righty Kenny Towns, who doubled two runs home to give Virginia a 4-3 lead. With a full bullpen available, it was surprising to see O’Sullivan not make a second pitching change for a right-on-right matchup against Towns.
3. Disappointing exits for Martin and Tobias: Two of UF’s best infielders this season had rough final nights at the plate to end their Orange and Blue careers. Bader and sophomore first baseman Peter Alonso (1/3, HR, 2 RBI, R, BB), who hit the longest homer in park history at 429 feet after setting the previous record at 421 feet earlier in the week, did their best to fill in offensively for the outgoing duo.