GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As the ground ball rolled toward JJ Schwarz at first base, Florida’s dugout got on its feet. Closer Michael Byrne’s heart raced as Schwarz called him off for the potential shovel toss. When Schwarz finally tagged the bag for the final out, the celebration could finally begin.
The No. 5 Florida baseball team clinched a share of the SEC regular-season championship and locked up the No. 1 seed for next week’s SEC Tournament with a come-from-behind, series-clinching 6-4 win over No. 7 Kentucky on Saturday afternoon.
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Florida (40-15, 21-9 SEC) is the conference co-champion with LSU, which defeated Mississippi State 11-7 late Saturday night. Regardless, the Gators’ series win over the Wildcats (38-18, 19-11 SEC) completed a worst-to-first turnaround for the Gators.
After being swept by Auburn to open SEC play, Florida went on to win eight of its final nine conference series, including the final six. It is Florida’s fourth regular-season SEC title in 10 years under coach Kevin O’Sullivan and the fifth SEC East title in that span.
“We’re a gritty group,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve been battle-tested. We’ve had some injuries. We’ve had to overcome some things. Started in the league 0-3 and our guys just continued to battle and fight through some adversity. It’s very enjoyable and I’m happy for the players.”
They battled through injuries yet again on Saturday. After trailing 2-0 in the bottom of the fourth, junior shortstop Dalton Guthrie rolled his right ankle trying to leg out an infield single. After Guthrie’s hit darted off Kentucky pitcher Justin Lewis’ calf, Kentucky third baseman Luke Becker charged for the ball and made a high throw trying for the out.
Guthrie ducked and moved slightly to the side to avoid being hit, which caused his foot to graze the right side of the first-base bag, his ankle to turn and him to fall to his knees. Guthrie was helped off the field by a pair of trainers and did not return.
O’Sullivan said after the game Guthrie merely suffered a sprain. He will not play next week in the SEC Tournament, but O’Sullivan said he’s optimistic Guthrie can return for the NCAA regionals.
“It was a little somber right after that,” O’Sullivan said, “and I said ‘that’s not what Dalton would want. We’ve got to get going here.'”
Florida did indeed get going. Schwarz ripped a double to the gap in left-center field the next at-bat before sophomore Nelson Maldonado clubbed a 3-run home run to give Florida a lead it would hold on to for the rest of the game. Maldonado added an RBI double an inning later.
“It’s was an emotional game for us,” Maldonado said with the sounds of Queen’s “We are the Champions” playing in the background. “With what happened to Dalton and evening up the series [Friday], we wanted to win really bad today. … It’s one of the greatest feelings in the world.”
Freshman Austin Langworthy’s RBI groundout in the fifth inning that scored Schwarz proved to be the game-winning run. Sophomore Blake Reese, who came into the game in as a pinch-runner for Guthrie, added an insurance run with a two-out RBI single in the sixth that scored Mark Kolozsvary.
On the mound, sophomore Jackson Kowar tossed 6 1/3 innings of 2-run ball, scattering 8 hits, striking out 4 and allowing just 2 walks. Kentucky’s runs came on a Becker double in the first inning and a Zach Reks single in the third. After that, Kowar tossed 3 scoreless innings and got out of a pair of jams to improve his record to 10-0 on the year.
The first came in the top of the fourth. Kentucky had runners on second and third with one out and looked to extend its 2-0 lead. Kowar proceeded to strike out Marcus Carson. One at-bat later, Guthrie and Schwarz combined to get Troy Squires out attempting to steal home to end the inning.
The second came in the fifth when Kowar loaded the bases with two outs on a hit-by-pitch, a single and a walk. Kowar forced Riley Mahan to fly out to left field to end the threat.
“I knew once they scored 2 that I just needed to hold them down there,” said Kowar, who is tied for third in the country in wins and is the first SEC pitcher this season to reach the double-digit threshold. “I knew we were coming around.”
After Frank Rubio relieved Kowar and gave up a first-pitch single, junior Nick Horvath came in and got the final two outs in the seventh. Horvath gave up a leadoff walk to start the eighth before being taken out in favor of sophomore closer Michael Byrne.
Kentucky then cut the Gators’ lead to 6-4 when Carson belted out a one-out, 2-run home run over the right-field wall and off of Ryan Larson’s glove in the eighth. Byrne settled in from there to retire the final 5 batters to allow Florida to celebrate its first regular-season championship since 2013.
“I’ve never had that kind of adrenaline going probably, but it was nice,” Byrne said. “It’s a good feeling. Hopefully I get it a couple more times.”
Florida will next play in the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala. As the No. 1 seed in the 12-team tournament, the Gators earn a first-round bye and will begin play Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. ET against the winner of the game Tuesday between the Nos. 8 and 9 seeds.
But for now, the Gators are celebrating a regular-season title.
“I’m going to kick back, relax and enjoy the rest of the day with my kids,” O’Sullivan said with a smile. “You know, just enjoy it. They’re not easy to come by.”