Florida Wins Series Against Vandy, Zunino Brightens Spotlight for SEC POY

No. 5 Florida Gators  (39-13/20-7 SEC) and No. 2 Vanderbilt Commordores  (42-8/20-7 SEC) met in the series finale Sunday at Hawkins Field in Nashville. After the Gators won the Friday-Saturday series opener 6-5, they were tied with the Commodores for first place in the SEC, but Vanderbilt took sole control of the top spot after a 14-1 romping of Florida in the second game. Florida was the series victor, defeating Vanderbilt  6-3 in a 12 inning battle, that saw Mike Zunino (C) record 5-out-of-6 RBIs.

Karsten Whitson (3-0) started on the mound for the Gators, allowing three earned runs on five hits, walking one, and striking out five in 4.1 IP . Commodore starting pitcher Taylor Hill (4-0) gave up two earned runs on four hits, with two strikouts in 6.1 IP. Both righties recorded a no-decision as RHP Tommy Toledo (2-1) picked up the win, and Jack Armstrong (0-1), who was responsible for putting the winning run on base, the loss.

Nolan Fontana (SS) opened the game with a lead off single to short stop, but RHP Taylor Hill set doen the next three batters, closing the Gators’ opening inning in order. Bryson Smith (CF), Preston Tucker (RF), and Mike Zunino. RHP (C)Karsten Whitson retired the side for a scoreless first inning.

In the top of the second with one out, Austin Maddox (1b) put the Gators on the board with a solo homerun to center field. Back-to-back groundouts by Josh Adams (2b) and Daniel Pigott (LF) ended the stanza with Florida on top 1-0. The lead was short lived, however, as Jason Esposito (3b) hit a lead off single to center field, and scored on a one-out Curt Casali (C) double off the left field wall to tie the game at one-a-piece. With Conrad Gregor (DH) at the plate, Whitson threw a wild pitch that advanced Casali to third, and landed Gregor at first with a walk. Connor Harrell (CF) doubled down the left field line, scoring Casali, and advancing Gregor to third. With one out and two men in scoring position, Whitson struck out Riley Reynolds (2b). With the Commodores still threatening to score, Whitson forced Tony Kemp (LF) to ground the ball between first and second. Maddox cuts off the ball, and throws to Whitson covering first, ending the inning with a 2-1 Vanderbilt lead and two left on base.

Hill set down the Gator side in order in the third inning. Whitson forced two outs in the bottom of the inning, but a fielding error by Cody Dent (3b) landed Esposito at first. Yastrzemski struck out to end the third.

In the visitor’s half of the fourth, Hill retired the heart of the Florida order. Casali extended the Vanderbilt lead to 3-1 with a solo shot that went over the scoreboard in left field. Gregor struck out swinging, Harrell popped out to second, and Reynolds flied out to a sliding Tucker in right field to end the fourth 3-1 Vanderbilt.

Hill retired 11 straight Gators batters after three consecutive fly outs in the top of the fifth inning. Kemp led off with a double down the right field line and advanced to third when Gomez grounded out to third. Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan replaced Whitson with southpaw Nick Maronde, who set down the next two Vanderbilt batters, leaving the score 3-1, with Kemp left on third.

Dent led off the sixth inning, swinging on a full count that grounded out to short stop. A basehit up the middle for Fontana marked the first Gator hit since Maddox’s homerun in the second, but Smith flied out, followed by a 4-1 put out on Tucker at first. Yastrzemski hit a groundball to Fontana who made a close throw to first, but was called safe. Casali flied out to shallow right field, and with Gregor at bat, Yastrzemski was caught attempting to steal second. Gregor struck out to end another scoreless inning.

Zunino got his first hit of the series, his second of his career against Vanderbilt, with a lead off home run to left field in the seventh inning. After Johnson flied out to right field, Vanderbilt replaced Hill with RHP Will Clinard who struck out Maddox with all curveballs. Adams singled to right field and Pigott flied out to right field to end Florida’s half inning down by a run. Maronde retired the Vanderbilt side in order to end the seventh.

With one out in the top of the eighth, Clinard was replaced by Corey Williams, who gave up a Fontana single to left field, then hit Smith with a pitch. With two men on and one out, Vanderbilt pitching coach Derrick Johnson headed out to the mound to settle down the lefty, while O’Sullivan headed to the plate for a quick word with Tucker. Tucker loaded the bases  with a basehit to right field, which prompted the Commodores to make another pitching change.  Zunino hit a sacrifice fly off of RHP Mark Lamm, scoring Fontana, and advancing Smith to third. With the score tied at 3-3, Lamm was replaced by LHP Kevin Ziomek who faced and walked one batter, Johnson. With the bases loaded and two outs, RHP Jack Armstrong struck out Maddox on a check swing for the third out. After retiring Gomez on a groundout to first, and Westlake on a fly out to deep center field, Maronde was replaced by Greg Larson. The righty forced Esposito into a groundout at first to end the inning.

Armstrong opened the ninth with a lead off walk to Adams who advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Pigott, but Florida couldn’t capitalize on the runner in scoring position as Dent struck out and Fontana grounded out to short stop. With the score deadlocked at 3-3, Larson issued Yastrzemski a lead off walk, and advanced into scoring position after Casali grounded out to third, but the Gators couldn’t turn the double play. LHP Steven Rodriguez moved to the mound and struck out Gregor and intentionally walked Harrell. Jack Lupo, pinch hitting for Reynolds, struck out to send the game into extra innings.

In the top of the tenth, Armstrong forced Smith into a groundout to third, followed by issuing Tucker a walk. With one out, Zunino sent a ball off of Gomez’s glove into center field, that was scored as an error, and advanced Tucker to second. Johnson struck out and Maddox grounded to Esposito for the force out of Tucker at third to end the stanza for Florida. In the bottom of the inning, Kemp reach on an error by Maddox, and Gomez landed at first after getting hit on the foot by Rodriguez. Westlake struck out for the seventh time in the series, and O’Sullivan opted to switch Rodriguez and Maddox, placing Rodriguez at first for the first time in his career.  Kemp and Gomez both advanced on a wild pitch by Maddox with Esposito at the mound, but Esposito popped out to Rodriguez. With two outs and two on, Maddox and Rodriguez switched back for the lefty to face Yastrzemski, striking him out.

Armstrong remained on the mound in the top of the eleventh, and retired the Gators in order. RHP Tommy Toledo took the mound at the outset of the hosts’ half and gave up a first pitch double to Casali, who advanced to third on a sacrifice fly by Gregor to center field. Toledo struck out Harrell and Sam Lind (PH) to send the game to the twelth inning.

Fontana was issued a lead off walk to open the twelth inning, and advanced into scoring position on a sacrifice bunt by Smith. After Tucker was intentionally walked, righty Navery Moore took over on the mound. Zunino put the Gators up 6-3 after a three run shot to right field. Jeff Moyer (PH) recorded the second out on a fly out to right field, followed by Maddox who struck out to end the inning. Toledo struck out Kemp, forced Gomez into a ground out to second, and Westlake to fly out to center field to end the ball game 6-3 Florida, after four hours, eight minutes of play.

In this campaign, both teams only played one game that went into extra innings, each winning its’ contest. Florida defeated Florida State 5-4 in 10 innings on March 15, while Vanderbilt defeated UI-Chicago 9-8 in 10 innings on March 12. The Gators, Commodores and South Carolina Gamecocks are all tied atop the SEC standings with records of 20-7.

Florida will host Jacksonville on Tuesday May 17, before heading into their final series of  the season, an SEC matchup at home against Kentucky May 19-21.

Dory LeBlanc is a contributing author at GatorsFirst.com and BourbonMeyer.com.  For more thoughts on the Florida Gators (and more) follow Dory LeBlanc on Twitter (@Dory_LeBlanc).

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