The second-seeded Gators advanced with a 6-4 victory over Vanderbilt on Friday. Preston Tucker drove in the go-ahead run in the eighth inning to offset a shaky bullpen that squandered a three-run lead.
Florida (53-17) will play South Carolina or Virginia in the best-of-three finals starting Monday. For the Gators, it’s the place to be to finish a year in which they were the preseason No. 1-ranked team, won the Southeastern Conference tournament and lost back-to-back games on only two occasions.
“You have to feel fortunate,” Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “You’ve got to have some breaks along the way. This is a long grind. This team, from day one, its goal was to set out to play for the national championship. That doesn’t always come in the end, doesn’t always work out that way. But they’ve been focused, and we’re looking forward to it.”
Alex Panteliodis limited Vanderbilt (54-12) to three hits in six innings before a parade of five relievers blew his 4-1 lead.
“That thing could have spiraled out of control,” O’Sullivan said.
Daniel Pigott singled and Cody Dent and Nolan Fontana reached on back-to-back bunts to load the bases in the eighth before Tucker drove a ball into deep left field. The Gators added another run when Mark Lamm’s breaking ball in the dirt bounced away from Curt Casali, allowing Dent to come home.
Austin Maddox (3-0) pitched the last 1 2-3 innings for the win, which was Florida’s fifth in six meetings this season against its SEC Eastern Division rival.
“We’re happy we’re in the finals,” Tucker said, “but we’re going to be just as disappointed as if we went 0-2 if we lose the series. So we’ll stay focused, bear down at practice and do the same thing we did today — executing some bunting, maybe some hit-and-runs.”
Oakland Athletics first-round draft pick Sonny Gray (12-4) took the loss for Vanderbilt, which was playing in the College World Series for the first time.
“We put together a great season. Nothing to be ashamed of,” Gray said. “We battled throughout the year and, unfortunately, we came up short two games here to Florida. They’re a good team, but I don’t think they’re any better than us. I just think they’re able to get the best out of us.”
Gray, who struggled despite winning his first CWS outing against North Carolina, was up and down during his 132-pitch outing Friday. He struck out eight but walked five, and had trouble picking up Fontana’s bunt in the deciding eighth inning.
“We drove the pitch count up on Sonny,” O’Sullivan said. “That was our goal because we knew we weren’t going to just sit there and bang away on him.”
Corey Williams came in to face Tucker, who was hitting .364 in the national tournament. He drilled a 1-0 pitch over left fielder Tony Kemp for his NCAA tournament-leading 19th RBI.
“I was looking for a fastball up I could elevate,” Tucker said. “I knew the wind was blowing in, so I knew it would be tough to get it over his head. All I was worried about is getting the run in from third.”
Panteliodis, the New York Mets’ ninth-round draft pick, retired the last eight batters he faced before he turned the game over to the normally reliable Florida bullpen.
Tommy Toledo faced five batters, getting pulled after Connor Harrell’s two-out single made it 4-2. Nick Maronde walked the bases full, then walked Kemp to make it a one-run game.
Greg Larson came on and got Anthony Gomez to fly out to right to end the inning.
Vanderbilt was back at it in the eighth. Steven Rodriguez, who held Vandy hitless in 4 1-3 innings of relief earlier in the week, left after giving up back-to-back singles.
Maddox, the closer, came on to face Jason Esposito, who broke an 0-for-15 slump with an infield single to load the bases. Maddox then hit Conrad Gregor to force in the tying run.
“We had nine outs to go, three-run lead. We like our ‘pen, and it didn’t quite go the way we want it to today,” O’Sullivan said. “But the bottomline is those guys needed to throw. They’re all going to contribute. They’re all going to need to contribute if we’re going to win this thing.”