Florida Gators baseball is hosting a super regional for the first time since 2018 after clawing its way back to win the Gainesville Regional thanks to three consecutive elimination game wins. Florida completed the trifecta on Monday with a 6-0 win in the championship game over Texas Tech.
In 2022, Florida forced the winner-take-all game with Oklahoma but came up short after losing the lead following a weather delay of 5 hours and 33 minutes. This time the weather was perfect and so were the Gators.
“Proud of our team, we played 27 innings in 27 hours basically,” Head Coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “I can’t speak for them, but it’s a little bit exhausting to be honest with you. Look forward to having (Monday night and Tuesday) off and then get back at it and see if we’re going to play on Friday or Saturday.”
If you ask catcher BT Riopelle, the Gators were ready to go even if a little sleep deprived.
“We were fired up,” Riopelle said. “None of us got sleep (Sunday night) at all. I know I didn’t for sure. Anybody that is a competitor didn’t. We have 40 guys in there, including coaches that are all competitors so nobody slept. A little bit of caffeine, a little bit energy drinks and woke up and we had enough energy to play and (Monday) it showed.”
Shortstop Josh Rivera said personally he didn’t get to sleep until about 2 a.m. Monday morning.
“You’re just trying to slow the heart rate down and kind of get relaxed, but you never really stop thinking about what you have ahead of you,” he said. “(Monday morning) we came in and we were tired, but we knew the job wasn’t finished. I kept reiterating that to the guys after the games (Sunday night): The job’s not done and now that we got through today and we won, it’s a very surreal feeling.”
Slater’s sensational start
A year ago on Monday, Slater took the loss against Oklahoma in Game 7 after giving up four runs in one inning of work coming out of the delay. In the winner’s bracket game Saturday he gave up a two-run go-ahead bomb to Gavin Kash in the loss to the Red Raiders.
But none of that mattered Monday. The righty was a big reason Florida followed through overcoming a loss in its first two games to win a regional since 1998.
The redshirt sophomore threw five shutout innings in his third appearance of the weekend and just his third start of the year.
O’Sullivan remarked postgame about the conversation he and Brandon Neely had when he had the chance to face Oklahoma again in Game 7 of the 2022 Gainesville Regional after being bounced after 2.1 innings that Saturday. Things like that don’t come around often and Neely pitching 6.2 innings of one-run ball that day. Slater had such an opportunity Monday.
“It was a pretty easy decision to decide on him to start,” he said. “I never said anything to him about redemption or anything like that. It’s the game of baseball and Gavin Kash ran into a ball on Saturday night. That happens. It’s part of the game…really, really happy for him to have that opportunity and he certainly pitched well today.”
Riopelle said Slater’s performance is something that’s expected out of him. All he thinks about when seeing him is the lead in wins and a good earned run average. In his words, “he’s a stud.”
Though his fatigue from his two previous relief outings showed in the start, Slater worked to get ahead against the Red Raiders. Texas Tech’s Nolen Hester said it felt like he was constantly down in the count.
“We didn’t really need him to do any more than he did,” Rivera said. “We just needed him to keep us in the game and that’s exactly what he did, especially with the wind blowing in he was making good pitches, pitching to contact and letting his defense work so it was amazing.”
BT breaks his slump
A big portion of the offense in the win was Riopelle who on the weekend was 0-for-15 with eight strikeouts heading into his second at-bat. That AB he launched the first pitch he saw over the right center field fence to extend Florida’s 1-0 lead to 3-0.
“The thing about BT at the plate is he might have an 0-for-4, but he is clutch,” O’Sullivan said. “He comes up at the right times at the right moment, and rises to the occasion. He certainly did that today.”
His next at-bat? A two-run missile to the right field berm for a 6-0 lead. He finished 2-for-4 with four runs batted in on Monday.
Funny how Kash’s two-dinger night sent Florida to the Sunday elimination game and a two-homer day from a Gator player Monday helped beat Texas Tech to complete the 3-0 run to a regional title.
“Even though he was struggling we were still able to get some wins (earlier in the regional),” Rivera said. “He came out today and showed up big time for us. And that’s exactly what we needed and that’s kind of just all we think about: no matter what we do in one game it doesn’t affect the next one.”
The Gators were danger of seeing their season end at the regional level for the third consecutive year. They couldn’t afford to go off-script on the mound and for three straight games the Florida staff showed out, spurring the three-game winning streak. Hurston Waldrep started it, Cade Fisher kept it going and Slater slammed the door.
“It gives us all kind of a deeper drive to compete despite how we may be feeling about our own individual performances and that’s huge for our team and our energy because as long as we stay together as a team and everybody individually competes and focuses on just competing it provides us with all the energy we need, especially when we have big time moments that swing the momentum our way…” Rivera said about the effect starting pitchers rolling can have on players.
There was another who won’t get as many flowers as those three and that’s Richie Schiekofer. The graduate student from Rutgers proved valuable over the weekend.
Whether it was throwing a FAMU runner at home in Game 2, making his first starts since the Alabama series, being able to play left field that way Wyatt Langford could be shifted to center or even turning the lineup over at the right times for the Gators.
There’s also Colby Halter — who made just two starts since the final game of the Texas A&M series on May 7 — be inserted back into the lineup. He played like a Hoover at third base while also putting together good at-bats and having a sacrifice bunt against UConn that set up an RBI single for Ty Evans.
“It’s awesome,” Riopelle said about guys stepping up. “It just shows how ready those guys are (and) all the work they put in. Because they don’t really get their name called all the time, but when they do, they’re ready.”
Florida will now prepare for it’s first super regional in Gainesville since 2018. It will be Condron Family Ballpark’s debut as a host at this stage in the postseason.
The Gators will have a familiar foe: the South Carolina Gamecocks.
They made it through the Columbia Regional without dropping a game. It’s a return for South Carolina as well. Mark Kingston’s squad is making the Gamecocks’ first supers appearance since his first year as the skipper in 2018. That year South Carolina advanced out of the Greenville Regional 3-0 before losing to Arkansas in three games in the Fayetteville Super Regional.
“We’re excited,” Riopelle said. “It’s a team we’re familiar with, but they’re hot. It’s a super regional. Any team playing in a super regional has the ability to win a national championship. It’ll be a marquee matchup for sure.”