Two runners on. Two outs. Close game. J.J. Schwarz at the plate.
The crowd had a suspicion of what was coming, and as soon as they heard the crack of the ball getting crushed by his bat, they received their confirmation.
Clinging to just a one run lead, Schwarz again stepped up again in the clutch, launching a three-run blast to left field in the bottom of the eighth to give the Gators the comfort needed heading into the ninth inning.
The homer, his 10th of the season, pushed Florida (43-16), the top seed in the Gainesville Regional, past the pesky Marist Red Foxes (32-22) by a score of 10-6. The win sets up a Saturday night matchup against USF, a team that handled Florida earlier in the season.
— Gators Baseball (@GatorsBB) June 3, 2017
Sophomore righty Michael Byrne also came up huge for Florida, clinical in an eight-out save appearance, extending his school record with his 15th save of the season.
“I have a lot of confidence in him,” Schwarz said of Byrne. “Everytime he comes in, we know he’s going to have a lot of pace, keep the defense in it. I think that’s big late in the ball game.”
“That’s what he’s been doing all year and he’s been really consistent. Every time he toes the rubber, you know what to expect.”
Jackson Kowar improved to 12-0 on the season after giving up five earned runs in 5.1 innings. Sean Keenan dropped to 6-1 for the Red Foxes, as they will take on Bethune-Cookman on Saturday in the loser’s bracket of the regional.
The game remained scoreless after the first inning. From there, a sloppy first half of the game that included wild pitches, fielding errors, and throwing errors led to both teams quickly getting runs on the board.
Marist drew first blood in the top of the second. Tyler Kapuscinski got on base for the Red Foxes with a single to third and got to second on a throwing error by Jonathan India. He eventually came across to score after back-to-back singles from Marist gave them the 1-0 lead.
Florida quickly responded with four runs of their own in the bottom half of the inning. Mike Rivera got the ball rolling for the Gators. After Nelson Maldonado drew a full count walk, Austin Langworthy and Deacon Liput each got on base to load the bases for the junior designated hitter.
Rivera took advantage, ripping a two-RBI single up the middle to put the Gators in front. Florida added two more runs in the inning via a Nick Horvath RBI single, just his fourth run driven in of the season, and a sacrifice fly from India.
— Gators Baseball (@GatorsBB) June 2, 2017
After extending the lead to 5-1 through three innings, errors came back to bite the Gators in the top of the fourth. An error each from Dalton Guthrie, a fielding one, and Jackson Kowar, on a throw to first, combined with a wild pitch from Kowar to allow Marist to score three unearned runs in the inning and get back into the game at 5-4.
“It was a weird inning,” said Kevin O’Sullivan, head coach of the Gators. “So I’m not going to let it take anything away from our defense. We were playing great defense all night long.”
After Florida put up a run each in the fourth and fifth innings, the Gators took a 7-4 lead into the sixth. But again, Marist clawed back to make it a one run game. Frank Rubio came in with one out and a runner on first to replace Kowar. Rubio was unable to strand him though, instead giving up a lasered two-RBI single to center from Randy Tavares.
Early Byrne Pays Off
Rubio made it until the top of the seventh with one out before O’Sullivan decided to take the gamble to bring on Byrne for the eight-out save.
“There was no choice,” O’Sullivan said. “I thought the game was on the line at that point. They had built up some momentum in their dugout and it worked out perfectly.”
“Ideally, we didn’t want to bring him on in the seventh, but he threw 25 pitches. He was very efficient and did a really nice job.”
Byrne’s ninth inning, the inning he usually comes in, became a lot easier after Schwarz’s three-run dinger.
Marist had been hanging around all game, but some separation in the bottom of the eighth felt like it would be enough to nudge the Gators past the finish line.
Schwarz gave that to them, launching the 3-1 pitch from Scott Boches over the left-center field wall, and giving Florida the 10-6 lead.
“I stepped in the box and I had a lot of confidence in myself… I was trying to come up big for my teammates, not necessarily with a three-run homer; just trying to get some RBIs and score some guys.”
“But he [Boches] fell behind, and he grooved one for me, and I just put a good swing on it… I think it was really big to get those cushion runs toward the end, and just take the pressure off the team.”
The Gators will get their chance at revenge against USF on Saturday night. The Bulls defeated the Gators 15-10 in Gainesville late in the season. Alex Faedo will take the mound for Florida.
“I would expect Alex to be at his best tomorrow,” O’Sullivan said. “I really would.”