Photo by Samuel Lewis | Getty Images

After a solid 6.2 innings and a 5.5 hour rain delay followed by a disastrous 8th inning, Florida’s postseason came to an end in the Gainesville Regional Monday night. A four-run rally by the Sooners and relief appearance from the Sooner ace Jake Bennett resulted in a 5-4 loss to oust the Gators from the first round for the third time in as many postseasons.

Rain Delay Kills Momentum

After a historic “start” from Carsten Finnvold on Sunday, the Gators still needed another great pitching performance. And Brandon Neely gave it to them.

The freshman more than made up for his 2.1-inning outing against the Sooners on Sunday with 6.2 innings, five strikeouts and just one earned run on a home run from future Gainesville Regional Most Valuable Player Kendall Pettis. He threw 97 pitches after throwing 50 just two days prior.

He got run support from a moon-shot home run from fellow freshman Jac Caglianone then an error in right field on a BT Riopelle single to score Colby Halter.

Then the marathon delay came, ending Neely’s outing and giving the Sooners time to reset. Oklahoma coach Skip Johnson called it a blessing for his team.

“It happened for a purpose, I’ve been in Omaha in the National Championship game in 2009, the second
game and we had a seven-to-eight-hour rain delay, and it is just what we do,” he said. “These players are really resilient. In the pitching tunnel they laid down, played games, and one time when I went in there, I
thought they were wrestling.”

Late-Inning Meltdown

With Neely’s day done, Florida turned to reliever Ryan Slater to potentially get the final seven outs and seal the win.

He started with a bang, striking out Kendall Pettis looking to end the top of the 7th inning that began 5 hours prior. But it turned sour after the Gators added a run in the bottom of the frame on a sacrifice fly.

John Spikerman smacked a leadoff double off him to start the 8th. After a nice power nap during the delay, Peyton Graham lasered a 2-2 fastball left up over the plate for a two-run home run to tie the game at 3-3.

But Slater couldn’t close the wound there as he relinquished a walk and a single. A bunt moved both runners over. An RBI groundout made it 4-3. And a single just under the glove of Sterlin Thompson made it 5-3. Florida struggled with bullpen meltdowns at several points this season and it showed again Monday.

O’Sullivan said the walk after the home run hurt the most. He had options in Nick Ficarrotta and Fisher Jameson ready to go. But Slater was Sully’s guy. He came through in some tough spots for them several times in 2022. Jameson did eventually come on to finish out the remainder of the game.

“No one feels worse than he does,” O’Sullivan said. “No one wants to fail, he competed and sometimes the other team just beats you. But Ryan has been our guy, when you get to this part of the season, I am not going to second guess any decision we make. He saved a lot of tough games down the stretch for us. I am proud of the progress he made.”

The Sting of Defeat

Florida batters were set down four straight times against the lefty Bennett pitching on two days’ rest before the Gators saw someone reach base.

And he didn’t really stay on base. Wyatt Langford roasted a pitch into the Adirondack chairs of the Dizney Grove to pull the Gators within one. Florida certainly had a shot with the white-hot Sterlin Thompson at the plate followed by BT Riopelle. But Thompson ended up grounding out and Riopelle struck out swinging to close the book on the marathon day and Florida’s season.

All losses sting for O’Sullivan, this one isn’t any different. But he just couldn’t help but think postgame of all the players whose seasons, and college careers for some, came to an end so abruptly.

And he mentioned how many great stories were on the team. Brandon Sproat stepping up as the ace, Jud Fabian turning down money to come back, Langford’s meteoric rise and even Halter and Thompson switching position midseason or Caglianone burning a redshirt to help the team with his bat.

“That is all you can do as a coach, coach them up, help them get better, and hopefully see them connect as a group,” he said. “Then go out there and play the best they possibly can, which is what they did.”

The Gator skipper said he’ll miss how connected his team was and that the players enjoyed each other’s company. He called the 2022 squad one of the most enjoyable he’s had.

Now, they’ll take a few days off and then we’ll see exit interviews. Some guys will leave, others will stay and certainly Gator fans will hear some of the players’ names called come MLB Draft.

O’Sullivan thinks they’ve done enough this season to build a foundation for the next few years even.

“Everyone wants to win at the end of the year, we have done that,” he said. “We have also lost in Omaha and that hurts, when you lose in a Super Regional or a Regional, it hurts. But your whole program is built around culture. I think this is a big step in building that culture back and getting to where we want to be: playing for a National Championship.”

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