By MATTHEW STEVENS
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – One pitch.
That’s all the Mississippi State coaching staff was going to give cleanup hitter Nick Vickerson in the ninth inning before they were going to have him bunt.
“(MSU assistant coach) Nick Mingione comes to me and says ‘hey do you feel about giving him a strike?” Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said. “Boy he made the most of that.”
That’s all the senior needed for a walk-off two-run home run to give the Bulldogs a 4-3 victory over host Florida in Game 2 of the NCAA Super Regional Saturday afternoon.
“I was just happy they gave me an opportunity to swing it,” Vickerson said. “We just felt like if we were in it in the end that somebody would step up and make a big play.”
The count for Florida reliever Steven Rodriguez (3-2) after coming into the game in the ninth inning and eventually taking the loss.
“He’s got swing and miss stuff,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said about the pitching change. “It’s a flip of the coin between he and (Nick) Maronde.”
When Vickerson’s shot to left field landed over the wall for his eighth home run of the season, suddenly Mississippi State (38-24) not only salvaged its season but put itself one win from the College World Series in Omaha. The final game of this best-of-three series will begin at noon today on ESPN.
Vickerson, who was drafted in the 20th round by the Texas Rangers in the 2011 MLB Draft earlier this week, had his former roommate Jarrod Parks standing on first base hoping he would make the most of his opportunity.
“When I saw they were going to give him one opportunity, I just thought “c’mon Nick, do your thing and let’s get out of here with the next swing,” Parks said. “I knew he’d try to end it right there.”
Vickerson, a Tuscaloosa, Ala., native, knew his stats against the Gators left-hander (0-for-2 with two strikeouts) before his game-winning home run and remembered the last time he hit a walk-off shot was as a 16-year-old in Alabama American Legion summer baseball, Post 34, a team Cohen has also played on.
“I knew who (Rodriguez) was and what he’d done against me - he has some good pitches,” Vickerson said. “I was thinking ‘just please give me a pitch to hit so I don’t end up bunting’.”
Vickerson would finish the game with State’s only multi-hit effort of the day being 2-for-4 with 2 RBIs and a pair of runs scored.
Florida (49-17), which has one of the deepest bullpens in the country, is unable to hand the ball to their closer Austin Maddox after the sophomore hurt his foot in the Gainesville Regional playing first base on a ball hit into foul territory against Manhattan.
The last time the Gators had given up a walk-off home run was on April 10, 2009 when Auburn’s Justin Hargett beat Florida.
“That’s what makes this unique,” O’Sullivan said. “If we want to get to where we want to get to and win a national championship it’s not going to be easy. We will not let this leak into tomorrow.”
Mississippi State was able to have a chance in the last innings thanks to a spectacular relief effort from junior closer Caleb Reed. The right-hander entered the game in the fourth inning with State down 2-0 and held Florida to just one run on four hits in 82 pitches.
“You have to pound the strikeout against this Florida lineup because if you walk people they get in rhythm,” Reed said.
Florida took an early 2-0 lead on MSU starting pitcher Nick Routt off a sac fly by Gators designated hitter Daniel Pigott in the fourth followed by a solo home run by Josh Adams that MSU right fielder Jaron Shepherd thought he had a beat on but lost his glove over the wall.
Shepherd would make up for it at the plate in the seventh with a single off Florida’s freshman starter Karsten Whitson that would allow Vickerson to move to third base. State designated hitter Cody Freeman contributed with the team’s first RBI-hit of the series with a single sending Whitson to the dugout after 6 1/3 innings. Brent Brownlee would tie the game off one of the first pitches he saw from UF reliever Tommy Toledo with a RBI-single up the middle.
Whitson, who turned down $2 million from the San Diego Padres after they selected him ninth overall in the 2010 MLB Draft, would finish with 6 1/3 innings of work allowing just four hits and a pair of runs while striking out six in 89 pitches.
“I was definitely pacing back and forth (in the dugout),” Whitson said. “It was definitely nerve racking though.”
Florida would retake the lead off Reed in the eighth when Tyler Thompson’s RBI-triple landed just off the glove of a diving C.T. Bradford in centerfield scoring what the 4,223 in attendance at McKethan Stadium thought was the game-winning run.
“I was playing shallow on that because the runner was on third base and if it hit it hard I figured it would fall anyway,” Bradford said. “I took a good path to it but just didn’t make it all the way.”
Mississippi State’s record was 1-22 this season when down after eight innings this season with the only come-from-behind victory being a 6-5 win at Dudy Noble Field on May 20 that eventually got them into the 2011 Southeastern Conference Tournament.
“I think if you’re a coach in the Southeastern Conference your whole life is rolling the dice,” Cohen said. “It’s this much. Everything is like that.”
Florida said the naming of a starting pitcher for today’s contest would be a game-time decision and would likely involve the medical status of sophomore left-hander Brian Johnson, who has been dealing with concussion symptoms since the final game of the SEC Tournament in Hoover. O’Sullivan said Johnson, who is also UF’s designated hitter, was not medically cleared to play Saturday.
Mississippi State will be sending its Friday night starter in sophomore left-hander Luis Pollorena to the mound for his fifth start this season.
“The job is not over and (Sunday) is a huge day,” Cohen said. “I would be absolutely shocked out of my mind if our kids don’t show up tomorrow ready to give the same kind of effort.”