Vanderbilt's Alan Espinal slides home safely as Florida catcher Luke Heyman is late with the tag at the Hoover Met on the opening day of the SEC Tournament on Tuesday. [Gary Cosby Jr./Tuscaloosa News-USA TODAY NETWORK]

Florida Knocked Out Of SEC Baseball Tournament In Opening-Round Loss To Vanderbilt

The Florida Gators baseball team has generated plenty of highlights throughout the 2024 campaign. Entering the SEC Tournament averaging an impressive 9.2 hits and 7 runs per game, Florida hoped to make some noise and shock the world in Hoover, Ala., this week.

But on Tuesday afternoon at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, the nine-seeded Gators ran out of gas.

In the opening round of the SEC Tournament, Florida stranded seven runners on base en route to a 6-3 loss to the Vanderbilt Commodores. The Gators (28-27) were held scoreless through the first seven innings, while the eight seed Commodores (36-20) steadily built a six-run lead.

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Florida managed to avoid the shutout in the eighth inning thanks to a RBI groundout from Colby Shelton. By this point, however, the Gators had nowhere near enough gas left in the tank to string together a comeback.

Luke Heyman, Cade Kurland and Jac Caglianone finished with multi-hit outings for the Gators. The latter also scored one of UF’s three runs. The other two scored on a two-run home run from Michael Robertson in the ninth inning.

Coppola’s Uphill Battle

UF pitcher Pierce Coppola (0-4) finished with a line of four hits, one walk, four runs and five strikeouts in 3 2/3 innings.

Coppola’s return from an injury-ridden 2023 campaign was meant to provide the Gators with a spark in the bullpen this season. Instead, Coppola has struggled to find his footing after spending more than a year away from the mound. The redshirt sophomore has compiled a 9.42 ERA through six starting appearances.

Vanderbilt starting pitcher Bryce Cunningham (7-4) was in control by tossing six shutout innings on five hits, no walks and six strikeouts.

“I think my changeup was probably my best pitch,” Cunningham said. “It set up everything else for me and just helped me move forward.”

Early Missed Opportunities

After a scoreless first frame from both sides, Heyman led off the top of the second with a single. Kurland followed with a knock to put two runners on for Florida.

Tyler Shelnut and Brody Donay both went down on swinging strikeouts in the next two at-bats before Dale Thomas grounded out to end the threat.

“We didn’t adjust to what [Cunningham] was doing, and we failed to execute,” Kurland said.

Robertson added he believed the team “didn’t do [their] job as hitters” in responding to Cunningham’s approach.

Vanderbilt then seized every remaining ounce of momentum. After Alan Espinal walked to start the second, Colin Barczi blasted a double into deep center field to give the Commodores men in scoring position. Both scored on a ground out and a sacrifice fly, respectively.

Florida nearly managed to string together a response in the following frame. Caglianone drilled a two-out single down the right field line, while Shelton drew a hit-by-pitch in the next at-bat. Both runners were stranded once again, this time on a Heyman swinging strikeout.

Commodores Keep Pouring It On

Vanderbilt continued to pile on as the game went on. In the fourth, Espinal singled and later scored on Matthew Polk’s RBI single. Polk scored on a Braden Holcomb single.

Following the fourth-frame turbulence, UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan replaced Coppola with Jake Clemente after another hit with two outs. Clemente retired the Commodores, but the damage had been done as Florida’s deficit doubled to 4-0.

Things only got worse for the Gators. After a scoreless top of the fifth, Calvin Hewett led off the bottom of the frame with a solo home run over the left field wall. The ball nearly traveled 400 feet and landed just beyond Florida’s bullpen.

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“It felt really good,” Hewett said as he chuckled in his postgame remarks. “When we get to two strikes, we talk a lot about trying to put the ball in play, and that one just happened to go out.”

Florida Runs Out Of Time

Two innings later, Jonathan Vastine landed on first via an error from Caglianone at first base. Vastine went on to steal second before crossing home plate on an RBI single from RJ Austin for a 6-0 advantage.

Florida finally broke up the shutout in the eighth. Caglianone singled, advanced to second on a passed ball and to third on a wild pitch before scoring on Shelton’s groundout.

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The Gators made it clear they would not go down without a fight in the ninth. After Donay singled, Robertson cracked a long ball just past the right field foul pole for his second home run of the season.

“We feel that we’re never out of a game,” Robertson said. “It doesn’t matter the deficit, we always have believe in that.”

From there, however, Florida’s hopes of a comeback fizzled out. With two outs, Ashton Wilson grounded out to second base.

Up Next

Florida’s fate now hangs in the balance of the NCAA selection committee, which will announce the 64-team tournament bracket at noon Monday on ESPN2.

The NCAA regionals start May 31.

“There’s been some inconsistencies, but at the same time, we’ve proved that we can play with anybody in the country,” O’Sullivan said. “Our schedule is difficult. We do that for a reason, for us to be battle-tested when we get into the postseason … But it’s up to the committee.”

Vanderbilt moves on to the double-elimination portion of the SEC Tournament with a 5:30 p.m. game Wednesday against against No. 1-seed and top-ranked Tennessee (46-10).

 

About Jack Meyer

Jack Meyer is a third-year student at the University of Florida. He is majoring in Journalism and specializing in Sports and Media.

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