By MATTHEW STEVENS
GAINESVILLE, Fla. Ââ€“ The new bats were designed to limit the amount of home runs in college bats.
Maybe the Florida lineup didnâ€™t get the message.
Florida used five home runs to score all of its runs and defeated Mississippi State 8-6 to earn the schoolâ€™s first ever back-to-back College World Series appearances.
Mississippi State took a 6-4 lead in the seventh inning and was eight outs away from its ninth trip to Omaha until Gators cleanup hitter Preston Tucker lifted a changeup over the left-centerfield wall for a three-run home run in what would eventually be the game-winning hit of the final Super Regional matchup at McKethan Stadium.
â€ś(Mississippi State) gave us everything we could handle and more,â€ť Florida head coach Kevin Oâ€™Sullivan said. â€śI think itâ€™s one of the best games Iâ€™ve ever been involved with.â€ť
During the nine-hour bus ride back to Starkville, all Mississippi State head coach John Cohen will likely think about is the seven total walks issued by his pitching staff, specifically the back-to-back free passes given up before the Tucker home run.
â€śThe deal with today is we didnâ€™t throw enough strikes,â€ť Cohen said. â€śWe had great opportunities to slam the door, and all we had to do is get Florida to put balls in play and we didnâ€™t.â€ť
The home run, which was Tuckerâ€™s 14th of the season, was hit off a changeup low and away from MSU junior closer Caleb Reed. The Bulldogs (38-25) were asking Reed (1-2) to get them through a two-on, one-out situation in the seventh after he threw 82 pitches the previous day.
â€śCaleb is one of the most competitive pitchers they have, thatâ€™s why heâ€™s their go-to guy,â€ť Tucker said. â€śI knew there was a base open and he wasnâ€™t going to give in and could go off-speed.â€ť
In the previous at-bat, Oâ€™Sullivan asked Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Mike Zunino to execute a sacrifice bunt giving up the bat that led the Gators in batting average (.370), home runs (17) and slugging percentage (.676).
â€śIt was very tough and heâ€™s swinging the bat as good as anybody,â€ť Oâ€™Sullivan said. â€śThe fear was we bunt Mike and then they pitch around Tucker and then right-on-right again and hit into a double play.â€ť
After being 0-for-7 in the previous two games of the series, Tucker finished the elimination game 2-for-3 with all three RBIs and runs scored coming off the home run.
â€śWe had just given up three runs and everybody was kind of questioning if we could come back even though weâ€™ve done it plenty of times this year,â€ť Tucker said.
Florida got a pair of long balls from junior designated hitter Daniel Pigott to get the announced attendance of 3, 812 on their feet at McKethan Stadium.
The last time Florida (50-17) had five home runs in a contest was Feb. 15, 2005, against Florida A&M.
â€śIt just was an emotional game for the players and for me,â€ť Oâ€™Sullivan said. â€śI probably learned more about coaching in the last 24 hours than I did in the last four years.â€ť
Stateâ€™s pitching staff had not given up more than two home runs in a game before Sunday afternoon and fell victim to one of the most powerful lineups in the country. MSU brought in a total of seven pitchers in the game, and the two that didnâ€™t register a walk to a Florida hitter (Chris Stratton and Kendall Graveman) accounted for one inning of work combined.
â€śThatâ€™s my responsibility and thatâ€™s an area of our program that we just got to get better,â€ť Cohen said. â€śWeâ€™re basically a couple of strikes away from changing the momentum of this game and going to Omaha.â€ť
Mississippi State took the lead after RBI-hits in the seventh inning by senior Nick Vickerson and junior outfielder Brent Brownlee. Brownlee finished with his third three-hit game of the year concluding with the two-run single up the middle off Florida right-hander Tommy Toledo to give MSU the lead.
â€śIt was awesome and we were all up but we still had nine outs to go,â€ť Brownlee said. â€śYou canâ€™t help but think that way (that was the game-winning hit) and youâ€™re so pumped up and ready to go.â€ť
Toledo (6-3), who threw eight pitches Saturday, settled after giving up a pair when the junior came into the game and got six straight outs to send Florida to Omaha for the seventh time in school history.
â€śI think that was a very fitting end to possibly his last game at Florida,â€ť Oâ€™Sullivan said of the 11th round draft pick by Milwaukee in the 2011 MLB Draft. â€śI couldnâ€™t be more happy and proud for him.â€ť
After Florida took an early 4-0 lead, Vickerson got MSU back in the game with one swing of the bat similarly to how he ended Saturdayâ€™s victory. The senior second baseman took a belt high fastball from Gators southpaw starter Alex Panteliodis and deposited it into the left field bleachers for a three-run shot instantly giving the Bulldogs a momentum boost.
â€śI think the seniors played a part in having everybody stay level headed this season,â€ť Vickerson said. â€śWhen things are going great, itâ€™s easy to get real high on yourself and think youâ€™re doing something special.â€ť
In the final game of his MSU career, Vickerson finished 2-for-5 with four RBIs and two runs scored. Throughout the weekend, he went 7-for-13 at the plate with six RBIs and four runs.
â€śOur seniors have laid the foundation for our young guys,â€ť Cohen said. â€śItâ€™s like the football thing with the bowl. The young guys get to be a part of it. Thatâ€™s how you build a program.â€ť
Florida will now prepare for the College World Series that will start next week as Mississippi State says goodbye to eight seniors that came one win away from the schoolâ€™s first trip to Omaha since 2007.
â€śItâ€™s a big jump for our program, but I canâ€™t stand saying that because I want to be in Omaha,â€ť Cohen said. â€śI donâ€™t want to say itâ€™s a moral victory. There are none. We got to get to Omaha and do what it takes.â€ť