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OMAHA, Neb. – As Florida went to the bottom of the eighth inning tied 4-4 with Vanderbilt after the Commodores tied the game in the top half of the inning, the thought finally crossed coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s mind.
The Gators had so much success against the Commodores this season. They defeated the ‘Dores two of three on the road to end the regular season, they defeated the Commodores in the SEC tournament title game. They also beat the ‘Dores 3-1 earlier in the College World Series.
To say the least, O’Sullivan finally felt like this just might be the time the Commodores got the best of his team.
“I don’t know what it is, but we’ve been able to score one or two more runs than Vanderbilt,” O’Sullivan said. “I think both teams were evenly matched. I think their lineup is outstanding, and I also think our lineup is outstanding.”
Fortunately for O’Sullivan, his Gators responded from the bad top of the eighth inning with a great bottom of the eighth, effectively taking the momentum back from the Commodores with a pair of runs on a Preston Tucker RBI single and a wild pitch.
“It was a do-or-die situation for them. They have a great offense and can turn things around pretty quickly,” Tucker said. “I’d be lying if I said there weren’t some nerves there. A few times in the field I was nervous, then we got out of situations and made the pitches we needed to. Then we came out on top.”
After the dramatic eighth inning, the Gators got a solid ninth inning from hard-throwing right-handed pitcher and closer Austin Maddox, who allowed a double from hard-hitting Vandy first baseman Aaron Westlake, but otherwise put together a solid frame in his first Omaha appearance to preserve a 6-4 victory.
“We have a lot of confidence in him [Austin]. He’s a strike thrower and one of the most competitive players on the team,” O’Sullivan said. “In order for us to win this thing, he was going to need to be a major factor in this game. There’s no perfect situation to put him into. I’m really proud of the way he threw.”
While Maddox closed out the Commodores and saved a Florida bullpen that was uncharacteristically shaky, the tone for the game was set well before the righty entered the game. Left-handed pitcher Alex Panteliodis took care of that.
Panteliodis had a history of success against the Commodores. He threw 1 1/3 innings of scoreless relief work during the regular season, while he tossed 5 1/3 shutout innings against the ‘Dores in the SEC tournament title game.
On this day, the lefty once again displayed his prowess. He only struck out three batters but allowed just a run on three hits in six innings.
“I thought he did a great job of utilizing the outside strike zone,” Vanderbilt first baseman Aaron Westlake said. “It’s just one of those things where we came out short and that’s a credit to them. We have no regrets.”
Vanderbilt’s magical season ends with the tough loss to the Gators. But Florida now has a chance to win the program’s first national title after entering the season as the nation’s top-ranked team.
“The goal from Day 1 in this program was to play for the national title,” O’Sullivan said. “It doesn’t always work that way, but this team has been focused and we’re looking to playing for the title. We’ll just try to approach things as business as usual.”
Player of the game: Florida LHP Alex Panteliodis – Many observers felt the Gators should’ve started ace right-handed pitcher Hudson Randall. But O’Sullivan went with Panteliodis and his decision proved to be the right one. Panteliodis was fantastic against the Commodores for the third time this season. He struck out three batters, walked none, and allowed just three hits in six innings. Panteliodis threw 86 pitches in the game, 56 of them for strikes.
Turning point: Florida carried a lead over Vanderbilt for much of the contest before the Commodores made things interesting in the eighth inning by scoring a run and tying things up at 4-4. The Gators, though, as they always seem to do, responded in the bottom of the inning with an RBI single from Preston Tucker and another run scored on a wild pitch to take a 6-4 advantage over the Commodores. UF closer Austin Maddox took the mound in the ninth inning and closed out the ‘Dores to solidify his team’s spot in the national title series.
Where both teams stand: Vanderbilt had a truly magical campaign, but its ride ends with the loss to the Gators. It’s safe to say the Commodores’ 2011 season was the most successful in school history. While Vandy’s ride ends, Florida’s continues with a trip to the national title series. The Gators last played for the national title in 2005, where they dropped a hard-fought series to Texas. Interestingly, with O’Sullivan opting to throw Panteliodis against the Commodores, that means ace Hudson Randall is ready to go in the opener of the title series.
Starting pitcher Alex Panteliodis put together another solid start against Vanderbilt. What did he do well today?
O’Sullivan: He just went out there and threw strikes. He threw the ball across the plate in a big yard and that’s all you can really ask for. He did a tremendous job of locating his fastball in addition to his changeup and breaking balls. He was able to build things off his fastball.
Third baseman Cody Dent really has stepped up at the plate the past couple of weeks. Can you talk about his surge?
O’Sullivan: Everything goes full circle throughout the season. The one move you make [putting Dent in the lineup] you don’t realize is going to be a difference maker. Well, putting him in the lineup seems like a pretty good move at this point.
Even though your team began the season ranked No. 1, there are always points throughout the regular season when coaches realize their team can win the national title. At what point was that the case with you?
O’Sullivan: For us, we knew we had a chance to be good entering the season. Going through the regular season tied with Vanderbilt and South Carolina most of the way felt pretty good. Winning the SEC tournament title was big and that was a turning point for us. Winning the Saturday game against Miami in the Gainesville Regional was another point while I was impressed with the way we bounced back against Mississippi State after losing Game 2 of that Super Regional series. There are things that have happened where we’ve had our backs against the wall, only to build on each experience we’ve been through.
The bullpen, which usually is fantastic, struggled today. Can you talk about the unit as a whole in today’s game?
O’Sullivan: We didn’t throw strikes, it’s really as simple as that. We just need to throw more strikes. This ballpark is so big, we just need to do that. I thought Tommy Toledo did a nice job at times, but I’m also not sure what went wrong at times. I thought Greg Larson inducing a fly out to Anthony Gomez in the seventh inning was huge. I thought that was a key turning point in the game. Additionally, I truly believe Nick Maronde will be much better the next time out. He has been too good the entire season. It’s just a pressure-packed situation for players, fans and even you guys. It’s always in the back of their minds that at some point Vanderbilt had to break through.
You had the luxury of throwing closer Austin Maddox, who hadn’t been on the mound in a couple of weeks because of an injury. Your assessment of his performance?
O’Sullivan: I think he did exactly what he needed to do. We have to get back to work. He didn’t throw many sliders and changeups. I just think we need to go to work and have him throw more tomorrow at practice and see how his arm feels. He also needs to work on his secondary stuff, just to kind of reassure himself. He said he felt fine after the game despite hobbling a bit. You’re going to get the same answer from him each day, and it’s that he feels fine. We’ll see how it feels tomorrow, we’ll let the doctor handle it. It’ll be hard not to have him out there the next chance he gets.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Perfect Game USA and has covered the sport for over 10 seasons. He can be reached at email@example.com