OMAHA, Nebraska -- Perhaps it was just a matter of time until Florida's awesome hitting power surged to center stage Friday night vs. Virginia in the Men's College World Series at Charles Schwab Field Omaha.
Having entered the night with 129 home runs as a team on the season, the national 2-seed Gators were held pretty much at bay until the final two innings. Then they blasted three home runs to rally for a wild 6-5 walk-off win in the bottom of the ninth, eventually scoring the winning run on designated hitter Luke Heyman's bases-loaded sacrifice fly.
"Special things happen this time of the year," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "I'm awfully proud of the team, the way we battled."
Down 4-2 entering the bottom of the eighth inning and 5-3 entering the ninth, the Gators suddenly started dropping bombs on the Cavaliers.
BT Riopelle's solo homer to lead off Florida's half of the eighth cut it to 4-3. Then, in the bottom of the ninth after Virginia had added what it thought was an insurance run in the top half of the inning, late-inning replacement Ty Evans led off by launching another solo bomb and the deficit was sliced to 5-4. One out later, Wyatt Langford blasted yet another solo shot off Virginia closer Jake Berry, tying it up, 5-5.
A clearly rattled Berry next gave up a sharp single to Jac Caglianone, walked Josh Rivera and hit Riopelle with a pitch, loading the bases.
At that point, Virginia called upon Jay Woolfolk to replace Berry and face Heyman, who wasted little time in launching a fly ball on a 2-0 pitch plenty deep enough to score Caglianone from third on the sac fly, finishing off the amazing Florida comeback.
Riopelle said it was just a matter of time until the Gators struck.
"The wind is blowing in and the ball wasn't flying and helping us to our advantage," Riopelle said. "It was a little frustrating, but all you can do is just move on. Your best players have to play the best in the right moments to win games. And we did that tonight.
"We've done it in the past and it definitely gave us confidence. But what a tough game that was. Virginia is a fantastic opponent."
To the naked eye, Langford may have seemed the hero thanks to his 19th homer of the season that tied the game, but much of the post-game praise from him and others went to Evans, who entered the game as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the seventh inning and doubled then before hitting his home run to start the ninth.
"Ty, he's put in the work all year," Langford said. "... He's probably disappointed with the amount of (his) playing time, but he's stuck it out. And he knew his time was going to come. That's just how this game goes. We have so many guys on the bench that can perform. And he was the guy that got his number called tonight."
Florida struck first in the bottom of the second when Riopelle walked and eventually scored on Colby Halter's line-drive RBI single to left.
The Gators' 1-0 lead held up until disaster struck in the top of the seventh.
Florida starting pitcher Brandon Sproat appeared to be sailing along, working on a four-hit shutout, when he walked Ethan Anderson to begin the inning. On his next pitch, his 100th of the night, he surrendered a single through the right side of the infield to Casey Saucke. The Cavaliers tied the score 1-1 when, with the Gators' infield drawn in, Anthony Stephan ripped a hot grounder that Florida third baseman Colby Halter fumbled. Although Halter threw onto first for the first out of the inning, his inability to handle the ball cleanly cost him any chance he had of cutting down Anderson at the plate.
When Virginia's Henry Godbout followed with a single to shallow right, advancing Saucke to third, Sproat's seemingly brilliant night was suddenly over.
After lefty Cade Fisher came on to replace Sproat, Halter made up for his earlier miscue briefly by handling another hot grounder and cutting down Saucke at the plate -- and for a moment, it appeared the Gators would escape the inning without further damage and with the score still tied, 1-1.
It was not to be, however, as the next Virginia batter, Griff O'Ferrall, jacked a two-run double to the gap in left center, making it 3-1. Ethan O'Donnell followed with an RBI single to extend the Cavs' lead to 4-1, chasing Fisher from the game after facing only three batters and securing just one out.
Sproat thus entered the seventh working on a masterful shutout and left as potentially the losing pitcher of record. He did hurt himself by battling his control, as he walked three batters and hit another two -- but otherwise he deserved a much better fate. In 6.1 innings of work, he gave up five hits and though he left the mound with the score tied 1-1, he eventually was charged with three earned runs when Fisher could not work out of the jam Sproat left him.
The Gators immediately mounted a serious threat to come back, as it took Virginia three different pitchers to get out of the bottom of the inning.
Freshman left-hander Evan Blanco replaced effective Virginia starter Nick Parker to start the bottom of the seventh and quickly ran into trouble. He walked pinch hitter Dale Thomas, who eventually came around to score on Cade Kurland's groundout, and the Gators then proceeded to load the bases with two outs.
But Berry got Florida cleanup hitter Josh Rivera to hit a sharp bouncer right back to the mound to end the inning, leaving it at 4-2 until the Florida home-run barrage commenced the next inning and saved the night for Florida.
Parker went six innings for Virginia, giving up four hits and one run while walking three and striking out one. But eventually, the Gators chewed up the relievers who followed Parker to the mound.
That included Langford, whom Sullivan has called and continues to call "one of the best players I've ever coached."
Langford launched the homer that tied it, but he again said it was Evans who set the stage for the amazing comeback.
"Going up to the plate I was thinking the same thing I always do," said Langford, who leads Florida with a .370 batting average. "I was going up there to compete and get on base and pass the torch for the next man to eventually lead us to winning the game. ... After Ty's home run and even before that we all knew we were going to win that game. It's just a matter of doing my part."
HOW IT HAPPENED
B2 | Riopelle walked. Luke Heyman singled to shallow left, advancing Riopelle to second. Tyler Shelnut grounded into fielder's choice to second, with Heyman out at second and Riopelle advancing to third. Halter singled to left, scoring Riopelle. Florida 1, Virginia 0.
T7 | Anderson walked and Saucke singled, with Anderson going to third. Stephan grounded out to third, with Anderson scoring and Saucke advancing to second. Fisher relieved Sproat as Florida's pitcher. Harrison Didawick grounded into fielder's choice to third, with Saucke out at home and Godbout to second. O'Ferrall doubled to left, scoring Godbout and Didawick scored. O'Donnell singled to right center, scoring O'Ferrall. Virginia 4, Florida 1.
B7 | Blanco relieved Parker as Virginia's pitcher. With one out, Thomas pinch hit for Halter and walked. Ty Evans pinch hit for Richie Schiekofer, and Virginia brought on Jack O'Connor to replace Blanco as pitcher. Evans doubled to right, with Thomas advancing to third. Kurland grounded out to third, scoring Thomas. Virginia 4, Florida 2.
B8 | Riopelle led off the inning with a solo homer. Virginia 4, Florida 3.
T9 | Saucke walked and two outs later scored when Didawick tripled to deep right. Virginia 5, Florida 3.
B9 | Evans homered to left and one out later Langford homered to left to tie the game. Caglianone singled hard to right center, Rivera walked and Riopelle was hit by a pitch, loading the bases. Woolfolk relieved Berry as pitcher for Virginia. Heyman hit sacrifice fly to center, scoring Caglianone. Florida 6, Virginia 5.
Florida (51-15) will face Oral Roberts, who defeated TCU earlier Friday, in a winner's bracket game Sunday at 7 p.m. ET in a game to be televised by ESPN.
Virginia (50-14) will face TCU in an elimination game Sunday at 2 p.m. ET, which also will be televised by ESPN.