OMAHA, Neb. -- If it wasn’t clear heading into the College World Series, it is now: Florida’s offense is on another level compared to the rest of the field.
The Gators pounded out four runs in the third and five runs in the sixth to top Virginia 10-5 on Friday afternoon at TD Ameritrade Park, setting up a winner-take-all rematch on Saturday.
Florida’s pair of outbursts marked the fourth time it put up at least four runs in a frame in the College World Series. The rest of the original eight-team field have a combined three.
Virginia, having stymied the Gator buzzsaw once before in the CWS, appeared on its way to another quality start. Nathan Kirby, making his first appearance since April 17, retired six of the first seven with the Cavaliers up 1-0 in the third.
Then things went sour. Quickly.
Dalton Guthrie and Ryan Larson hit back-to-back singles from the eight and nine spots to put runners on the corners with one down. A Harrison Bader RBI groundout plated Guthrie before Richie Martin two-hopped an RBI double to the wall in right. Josh Tobias followed by lining an RBI single into left to bring Kirby’s day to an abrupt close.
A passed ball later plated another for the Gators to build a 4-1 lead.
Florida blew the game open in the sixth. The Gators sent 10 to the plate with four singles, two walks and a hit-batsman. When the dust settled, five crossed home to build a 9-1 edge and shift everyone’s focus to Saturday.
Virginia coach Kevin O’Connor knew containing Florida’s offense two games in a row would be a tall task.
“Certainly, they've had a nice offensive ballclub all year long,” he said. “They have the ability to score from different spots in the lineup. They've got power. They've got speed. They've got a really, really nice club.”
O’Connor’s decision to go with Kirby is part of the luxury of being in the winners’ bracket. The left-hander hadn’t appeared in game action since April 17 due to a latissimus dorsi muscle strain.
The gamble didn’t pan out on Friday, but it leaves Virginia’s pitching staff in as good a position as it could hope for going into Saturday’s deciding game.
O’Connor could go with Connor Jones on six days rest after holding Arkansas to three runs through six innings on Saturday. Then there’s the lefty Brandon Waddell, who blanked the Gator offense through seven innings, surrendering two hits in the process.
“I haven't decided who will start,” O’Connor said. “But we certainly have a couple of different options. And I feel good about it. We've got some pretty darned good guys left, and so we'll see what the right decision is. We'll make a decision at some point this evening on what we're going to do.”
Either option would make sense. Jones’ arm is rested and ready, but O’Connor said Friday that Jones wouldn’t pitch a third time in Omaha, leaving him out as a potential finals starter should he get the nod on Saturday.
Then there’s the proven commodity in Waddell who’s shown he can shut down the powerful Gator attack.
“Certainly we'll analyze that and determine what the best thing is,” O’Connor said of Waddell. “But he absolutely could be an option.”
For Florida, it comes down to left-hander A.J. Puk and right-hander Dane Dunning. Puk surrendered one run and four hits through 5.1 innings in the first meeting between the two clubs on Monday. Dunning pitched a scoreless ninth against Miami (Fla.) on Saturday. The Gators had to use ace Logan Shore on Friday to keep its season alive.
“We've got confidence in both,” O’Sullivan said. “Both very talented. So we'll get together with staff tonight and figure it out. But it's all hands on deck tomorrow. We're not going to hold back. So we'll worry about the next day the next day. But we're going to do anything we need to do to hopefully win tomorrow's ballgame.”