The Florida baseball team had to wait until late Wednesday night to start its SEC Tournament opener, and ultimately the Gators’ patience would prove decisive.
Christian Hicks drew a 5-pitch walk with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth inning to send the top-seeded Gators to a 5-4 win over No. 8 Auburn in second-round action at the Hoover (Ala.) Met.
The Tigers (35-23), who swept Florida in the teams’ opening conference series of the regular season, had rallied back with 4 runs in the top of the seventh to tie the game, but they couldn’t finish off the Gators (41-15) this time.
Florida, which had a first-round bye in the tournament, advances in the double-elimination bracket to a matchup Friday (noon ET) against the winner of No. 5 Mississippi State and No. 4 Arkansas, who square off Thursday morning. Auburn will play the loser of that game later Thursday.
“It was one of those nights that we scored just enough,” Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “I’m glad that we get to have a day off tomorrow, and that we are assured two more games in this tournament.”
Due to a rain delay in the previous game of the tournament, the Gators and Tigers didn’t get started until 10:45 p.m. ET (9:45 local time in Hoover). And the tension wouldn’t subside until the final out 3 hours and 20 minutes later.
JJ Schwarz started the Gators’ eighth-inning rally with a 1-out single to right, Nick Horvath followed with a walk and Jonathan India singled through the left side to load the bases.
Auburn went to the bullpen to call on left-hander Elliott Anderson, but he couldn’t find his control while falling behind 3-1 to Hicks. He then sailed his fifth pitch high to force in the go-ahead run.
Michael Byrne worked around a 1-out single in the ninth to close out the win for his 14th save of the season, breaking the Gators’ program record.
.@GatorsBB history in their 5-4 win over Auburn.
Michael Byrne set the single-season saves record with his 1️⃣4️⃣th save of the year. pic.twitter.com/62lNtJnbFC
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) May 25, 2017
Florida ace Alex Faedo took a no-decision after starting the night with six scoreless innings. He was pulled after giving up a leadoff single to Blake Logan and a walk to Bowen McGuffin to start the seventh as rain poured down yet again in Hoover.
After Will Holland reached on a fielders choice against reliever Frank Rubio, Horvath took over on the mound and Auburn broke through on the scoreboard as Jonah Todd reached on a throwing error by India at third base. Following a fly out, Horvath walked Dylan Ingram to load the bases and Conor Davis plated 2 more runs with a double to right.
Ingram slipped coming around third base when it looked like he might score on the play. That was significant as it also kept Davis from potentially advancing to third.
Ingram would eventually score on a wild pitch from Tyler Dyson, the Gators’ fourth pitcher of the inning, to tie the game at 4-4. But that’s all the Tigers would get.
“Auburn has a good team, and they hit me pretty well early in the season. I wanted to go out and put our team in a better place to win the game,” Faedo said. “I was happy we won. It wasn’t good that we gave up the lead but it was good that we had to fight back and that it wasn’t just given to us. That is what our team is all about, finding ways to win.”
Florida had earlier built its lead on a RBI single from Deacon Liput in the third and a 3-run fourth, including an India RBI single, a Hicks RBI double and an RBI single from Mark Kolozsvary.
Schwarz finished 2-for-3 with a double and 2 runs scored, India was 2-for-4 with an RBI and a run and Hicks was 1-for-3 with 2 RBIs and a run and catcher Mike Rivera was 1-for-3 with a run in his return to the lineup.
Rivera hadn’t played since breaking the hamate bone in his glove hand on April 11. O’Sullivan had talked previously about wanting to ease Rivera back into the lineup as a designated hitter, but he instead started behind the plate in his return with the Gators moving players around to account for the absence of injured shortstop Dalton Guthrie.
In the ninth, Rivera and the Gators received a scare as a Byrne pitch in the dirt bounce up off the catcher’s tender left hand. He was tended to on the field before remaining in the game.
As for Byrne, O’Sullivan raved again about his value to the team this season as a guy who went from projected mid-week starter to lights-out closer.
“Michael Byrne, what a great story. He broke the school record tonight with his 14th save and we had no idea he was going to be our closer until about a month into the season so congratulations to him,” O’Sullivan said.