By MATTHEW STEVENS
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The new bats were designed to limit the amount of home runs in college bats.
Maybe the Florida lineup didn’t get the message.
Florida used five home runs to score all of its runs and defeated Mississippi State 8-6 to earn the school’s first ever back-to-back College World Series appearances.
Mississippi State took a 6-4 lead in the seventh inning and was eight outs away from its ninth trip to Omaha until Gators cleanup hitter Preston Tucker lifted a changeup over the left-centerfield wall for a three-run home run in what would eventually be the game-winning hit of the final Super Regional matchup at McKethan Stadium.
“(Mississippi State) gave us everything we could handle and more,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “I think it’s one of the best games I’ve ever been involved with.”
During the nine-hour bus ride back to Starkville, all Mississippi State head coach John Cohen will likely think about is the seven total walks issued by his pitching staff, specifically the back-to-back free passes given up before the Tucker home run.
“The deal with today is we didn’t throw enough strikes,” Cohen said. “We had great opportunities to slam the door, and all we had to do is get Florida to put balls in play and we didn’t.”
The home run, which was Tucker’s 14th of the season, was hit off a changeup low and away from MSU junior closer Caleb Reed. The Bulldogs (38-25) were asking Reed (1-2) to get them through a two-on, one-out situation in the seventh after he threw 82 pitches the previous day.
“Caleb is one of the most competitive pitchers they have, that’s why he’s their go-to guy,” Tucker said. “I knew there was a base open and he wasn’t going to give in and could go off-speed.”
In the previous at-bat, O’Sullivan asked Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Mike Zunino to execute a sacrifice bunt giving up the bat that led the Gators in batting average (.370), home runs (17) and slugging percentage (.676).
“It was very tough and he’s swinging the bat as good as anybody,” O’Sullivan said. “The fear was we bunt Mike and then they pitch around Tucker and then right-on-right again and hit into a double play.”
After being 0-for-7 in the previous two games of the series, Tucker finished the elimination game 2-for-3 with all three RBIs and runs scored coming off the home run.
“We had just given up three runs and everybody was kind of questioning if we could come back even though we’ve done it plenty of times this year,” Tucker said.
Florida got a pair of long balls from junior designated hitter Daniel Pigott to get the announced attendance of 3, 812 on their feet at McKethan Stadium.
The last time Florida (50-17) had five home runs in a contest was Feb. 15, 2005, against Florida A&M.
“It just was an emotional game for the players and for me,” O’Sullivan said. “I probably learned more about coaching in the last 24 hours than I did in the last four years.”
State’s pitching staff had not given up more than two home runs in a game before Sunday afternoon and fell victim to one of the most powerful lineups in the country. MSU brought in a total of seven pitchers in the game, and the two that didn’t register a walk to a Florida hitter (Chris Stratton and Kendall Graveman) accounted for one inning of work combined.
“That’s my responsibility and that’s an area of our program that we just got to get better,” Cohen said. “We’re basically a couple of strikes away from changing the momentum of this game and going to Omaha.”
Mississippi State took the lead after RBI-hits in the seventh inning by senior Nick Vickerson and junior outfielder Brent Brownlee. Brownlee finished with his third three-hit game of the year concluding with the two-run single up the middle off Florida right-hander Tommy Toledo to give MSU the lead.
“It was awesome and we were all up but we still had nine outs to go,” Brownlee said. “You can’t help but think that way (that was the game-winning hit) and you’re so pumped up and ready to go.”
Toledo (6-3), who threw eight pitches Saturday, settled after giving up a pair when the junior came into the game and got six straight outs to send Florida to Omaha for the seventh time in school history.
“I think that was a very fitting end to possibly his last game at Florida,” O’Sullivan said of the 11th round draft pick by Milwaukee in the 2011 MLB Draft. “I couldn’t be more happy and proud for him.”
After Florida took an early 4-0 lead, Vickerson got MSU back in the game with one swing of the bat similarly to how he ended Saturday’s victory. The senior second baseman took a belt high fastball from Gators southpaw starter Alex Panteliodis and deposited it into the left field bleachers for a three-run shot instantly giving the Bulldogs a momentum boost.
“I think the seniors played a part in having everybody stay level headed this season,” Vickerson said. “When things are going great, it’s easy to get real high on yourself and think you’re doing something special.”
In the final game of his MSU career, Vickerson finished 2-for-5 with four RBIs and two runs scored. Throughout the weekend, he went 7-for-13 at the plate with six RBIs and four runs.
“Our seniors have laid the foundation for our young guys,” Cohen said. “It’s like the football thing with the bowl. The young guys get to be a part of it. That’s how you build a program.”
Florida will now prepare for the College World Series that will start next week as Mississippi State says goodbye to eight seniors that came one win away from the school’s first trip to Omaha since 2007.
“It’s a big jump for our program, but I can’t stand saying that because I want to be in Omaha,” Cohen said. “I don’t want to say it’s a moral victory. There are none. We got to get to Omaha and do what it takes.”