Gators come alive late to defeat Chippewas in regional opener

Friday night’s Gainesville Regional opener between No. 13 national seed Florida and Central Michigan wasn’t the Gators’ prettiest game of the year.

They were outhit 12-8, and they struck out a dozen times offensively. They hit just 3-for-13 with runners on base, and the Chippewas put at least one runner on base in seven innings.

Still, the hosts were able to do enough to exit Condron Ballpark with a comfortable 7-3 win. UF will face Oklahoma in the winners’ bracket game on Saturday at 7. The Sooners blasted Liberty, 16-3, in the first game on Friday.

Gators starter Brandon Sproat had some issues navigating the top part of Central Michigan’s lineup. He gave up nine hits, but he found ways to work himself out of some prickly situations to give up just one run in seven innings. He threw a career-high 114 pitches, with 80 of them for strikes. He struck out six batters and issued just two walks.

CMU starter Andrew Taylor was pretty dominant in his own right. He struck out nine Gators –including eight during the first three innings – and gave up a pair of runs on four hits in five innings. The Gators elevated his pitch count to 100 after just five innings, which allowed them to do some late-inning damage against the Chippewas’ bullpen.

“[Sproat] was outstanding tonight, and he needed to be,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “Their starter was really good. He was commanding the fastball to both sides, especially the outer half to righties. I knew going into this that this was not going to be easy. Central Michigan was ranked at some point during the season. They won 42 games. They’re scrappy, and they collected 12 hits tonight against two pretty good arms.

“It was a game where I knew we needed to play clean, and, what can I say, Brandon has been outstanding for a good part of the season.”

Jac Caglianone and Colby Halter powered the Gators’ offense by combining for four hits and six RBI. Sterlin Thompson also notched two hits, including his 11th home run of the year.

The top of the first provided a pretty good summary of the entire game. Singles by Mario Camilletti and Justin Simpson and a balk by Sproat put runners on second and third with nobody out just a few minutes into the game.

But Sproat battled through the early adversity. He got the next three batters to line out, strike out and ground out to keep CMU from scoring. The Chippewas had Sproat’s back against the wall, but they couldn’t finish the deal.

Central Michigan (42-18) took a brief 1-0 lead in the top of the third. Simpson led off with a single to right-center field, and he advanced to second on Jakob Marsee’s groundout to second. Danny Wuestenfeld hit a sharp groundball that snuck into center field to score Simpson.

Once again, the Chippewas threatened to do even more damage. Aidan Shepardson reached on a chopper to third. This time, Sproat got Garrett Navarra to ground into an inning-ending double play.

“Looking at these guys, we knew they were going to be tough,” Sproat said. “They don’t strike out much. They put the ball in play however they can. [I tried to] just pitch to get ahead and get the early contact and hopefully get outs from the early contact.”

UF (40-22) finally got to Taylor in the bottom of the inning when Thompson lined the first pitch that he saw over the left-center field wall to tie the game.

“It got the ball rolling for all of us,” Caglianone said. “The bats started off a little quiet. They had a great pitcher on the mound. Once he started that, everyone started playing a little more relaxed, and we started piecing it together.”

Sproat and Taylor managed to record the first 1-2-3 innings of the game in the fourth, but Central Michigan put together another threat in the fifth. Marsee singled to left with two outs, and Wuestenfeld followed with a base hit to right.

Marsee advanced to third on the play. But Wuestenfeld took too wide of a turn around first. Shortstop Josh Rivera cut off right fielder Ty Evans’s throw and fired a dart to first to nail Wuestenfeld for the final out of the inning.

That ended up being one of the biggest momentum changers of the game, as Halter belted a one-out homer into a near identical location as the one that Thompson hit to give UF the lead.

Navarra took over on the mound to start the bottom of the sixth, and he walked Jud Fabian to lead off the inning. Fabian advanced to second on Evans’ groundout, and Caglianone brought him home with a hard-hit double to the wall in right center to make it 3-1.

The Chippewas put a couple of runners on base with two outs in the seventh, which prompted O’Sullivan to visit the mound. At the time, Sproat’s pitch count was 112, so pretty much everyone in the building expected him to make the move to the bullpen.

Instead, he left Sproat in to try to get the final out of the inning, a move that elicited a roar of approval from the crowd of 5,472.

“When I go to the mound, my mind’s made up one way or another,” O’Sullivan said. “It didn’t have anything to do with Brandon wanting to stay in the game. I was just going out there to give him a little confidence. I told him plain and simple that he had earned the opportunity to finish that inning.”

O’Sullivan’s faith in Sproat paid off, as he got Marsee to line out to left to end the inning.

Ryan Slater took over on the mound to start the eighth, and things got very scary. A single by Wuestenfeld and a hit batter put two runners on with one out. Slater struck out Robby Morgan for the second out, but he plunked Drew Lechnir to load the bases and put the potential tying run in scoring position.

Slater struck out Adam Proctor on three pitches to preserve the lead.

Florida capitalized on the momentum in the bottom of the inning by scoring four runs to erase any doubt about the final outcome.

BT Riopelle led off with a single to center. Navarra walked Fabian on four pitches, and Evans moved them over with a sacrifice bunt. Then Caglianone came up clutch again, this time with a single through the right side that scored both runners and made it 5-1.

“It’s the best feeling, being up there and knowing I have a dugout full of guys that have my back,” Caglianone said. “They’re kind of banking on me to have a big hit, so it’s always a great feeling to come through.”

Ryan Insco entered out of the bullpen and walked Kendrick Calilao with two outs. Halter then crushed a two-run double to the wall in right center off of Jake Jones to make it 7-1.

The Chippewas added a couple of runs in the ninth via a Wuestenfeld RBI groundout and a Shepardson RBI single, but Slater ended the game with a strikeout of Navarra to pick up his sixth save of the season.

The Gators will try to keep the momentum rolling against the red-hot Sooners on Saturday.

“We’ve looked at them, but our whole focus has been on Central Michigan, or most of it anyways,” O’Sullivan said. “We’re going to get in here early [on Saturday] and knock out Oklahoma. They’re obviously playing really well. We’re playing well. We’re going to have to play our best baseball like we did tonight.”

Ethan Hughes
Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and also wrote for for two years before joining Gator Country in 2021. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars. You can follow him on Twitter @ethanhughes97.