The postseason often provides the opportunity for unlikely heroes to emerge, and that’s exactly what happened for the Gators on Saturday in Hoover, Alabama.
A few hours after Nick Ficarrotta threw a career-high 6 1/3 scoreless innings out of the bullpen in a win over Alabama, sophomore lefty Timmy Manning did something even more unbelievable in an SEC Tournament semifinal game against Texas A&M.
This season hasn’t gone the way that Manning had hoped for at all. He began the year as a member of the starting rotation, but he quickly fell out of favor with coach Kevin O’Sullivan after posting a 6.11 ERA in his first eight appearances of the year. He failed to throw more than 4 1/3 innings in any of his four starts. He hadn’t appeared in a game since April 5.
However, with the Gators short on arms as they entered their fifth game in as many days, O’Sullivan handed the ball to Manning with a spot in the SEC Championship Game and a potential home regional on the line.
Manning made O’Sullivan look like a genius. Manning dominated in his career-high five innings of work to the tune of no runs on five hits. He tied his career high with six strikeouts and only issued one walk.
Manning’s surprising performance was more than enough to propel the seventh-seeded Gators to a 9-0 win over the No. 2 seed Aggies (37-18). UF will face either top-seeded Tennessee or No. 12 seed Kentucky in the championship game on Sunday at 3.
“It was a long day at the field, but it was a lot of fun,” O’Sullivan said. “I’m really proud of the way we competed, and now we have an opportunity to play one more game.”
This was also another terrific game for Florida’s offense, as they scored in every inning except for two. Over their last three games, the Gators have amassed 27 runs on 31 hits. That comes out to nine runs per game and a .304 team batting average.
BT Riopelle led the way against the Aggies with three hits, while Wyatt Langford and Ty Evans chipped in two hits apiece. Jud Fabian belted his 22nd home run of the season, and Mac Guscette delivered a clutch two-run single.
Fabian opened the scoring in the top of the second when he lined a 1-2 slider from starter Ryan Prager over the left-field wall for his second long ball of the tournament.
Langford led off the third with a double to the wall in right center. He moved over to third on Sterlin Thompson’s groundout and scored on Riopelle’s sacrifice fly to right.
A walk, an error and a sacrifice bunt by Josh Rivera put two runners in scoring position with one out in the fourth. Guscette took a pitch near the bottom of the strike zone and pulled it down the third-base line. The ball deflected off of third baseman Trevor Werner’s glove and trickled into shallow left field to plate both runs and make it 4-0.
Evans tacked on another run in the fifth off of Robert Hogan when he grounded into a double play with runners on the corners.
Meanwhile, Manning got stronger as the night went on. He allowed two runners to reach scoring position in the first but got Ryan Targac to ground out. From that point on, he didn’t allow more than one baserunner in an inning, culminating in a 1-2-3 fifth that was punctuated by a strikeout of Werner. While walking back to the dugout, Manning unleashed a fist pump that was 53 days in the making.
“I just came in and did my job,” Manning said. “I had my name called on and just executed. Try to win the ballgame and put my team in the position that we’re in now.
“The beginning of the year didn’t go the way I wanted it to, but that’s the game of baseball. Come back, work hard, and, when your opportunity’s ready, make the most of it. That’s what I did.”
The Gators (39-21) kept adding insurance runs throughout the game. A hit batter and a walk eventually led to them having runners on second and third with two outs in the sixth. Langford poked a 1-1 offering from Jack Hamilton underneath the first baseman’s glove to make it 7-0.
Jac Caglianone drove in the final two runs of the game with a sacrifice fly in the seventh and a fielder’s choice in the ninth.
“I think the momentum that we had in the first game kind of rolled over to the second game,” Fabian said. “Hitting’s contagious, and we had a bunch of hits today and scored a bunch of runs. We’re going to look to keep that going [on Sunday].”
Freshman Fisher Jameson picked up right where Manning left off on the mound. He gave up just one hit in four innings and struck out four batters. He retired the first 11 batters that he faced until Targac doubled in the ninth inning.
The game ended when pinch hitter Rody Barker hit a flyball just into foul territory down the right-field line. Evans sprinted over and made a sliding catch for the final out, his third highlight-worthy catch of the night.
The Gators have come a long way since April 24. On that day, they were swept at home by No. 1 Tennessee, a loss that dropped them to 6-12 in SEC play. They had just received the news that ace Hunter Barco would undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery. At that point, even making the SEC Tournament looked like an uphill battle.
Since then, they’ve gone 16-4 and have given the selection committee something to think about regarding hosting a regional.
“We had a lot of moving parts, and we didn’t have a whole lot of answers, quite honestly, and the competition we were playing was really good,” O’Sullivan said. “It just took us some time to kind of figure it out.
“I was hoping we would figure it out a little bit sooner, but, sometimes in this game, it doesn’t happen at the exact time you want it to.”
But everything has come together just in time to play for an SEC Tournament Championship.