Caleb Gilbert’s slider was biting. His fastball had life, touching 93 mph as he moved with alacrity through a difficult Florida lineup. He had yielded hard contact throughout a two-run first inning but, to this point, was nearly unhittable as Jeremy Vasquez dug in with one out in the fifth.
Vasquez looped a single, stopping Gilbert’s rhythm and becoming the first Gator in 11 tries to reach base. Cole Freeman broke toward second as Vasquez took off one pitch later. Ryan Larson lined a single where Freeman wasn’t.
“Man,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said afterward. “I suspected a hit and run and I should have followed my gut and called a pitchout, and I didn’t.”
With two wins against the No. 1 team in the country already in his possession, Mainieri’s tone was chipper for such a self-loathing sentiment. He admitted the obvious: The team would have cherished a sweep of the Gators.
Instead, Vasquez, Larson and Dalton Guthrie scored in that fifth inning on Jonathan India’s RBI double — a shot down the third-base line off reliever Russell Reynolds that lifted Florida to its 6-2, series-finale victory.
It ended the Tigers’ hopes of becoming the first team to sweep the Gators since 2013 — when LSU did the deed.
“When you step back,” Mainieri said, “I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed of.”
With the loss, LSU secured the No. 5 seed in next week’s SEC tournament, matching it against No. 12 seed Tennessee in a single-elimination game Tuesday at 8 p.m. in Hoover, Alabama.
Gilbert yielded hard contact throughout the first inning, when JJ Schwarz ripped an RBI double to the track in left-center and, two batters later, Deacon Liput dumped an RBI single to give the Gators an early 2-0 lead.
Making his third career start, Gilbert neglected to keep the ball down in the zone, getting just one groundball out in 4.1 innings. After Nelson Maldonado’s leadoff single in the second inning, though, Gilbert retired 10 in a row before Florida’s fifth-inning flurry.
“With a team like this, you really want to get ahead early,” Gilbert said. “I was starting off with a lot of changeups and dumping in some sliders for strikes and respecting everything more from the hitter’s standpoint, and it really got me in a groove.”
Jake Fraley cranked a solo home run off Florida starter Alex Faedo’s 1-2 fastball in the first to cut the Tigers’ early deficit, but LSU was able to do little else against the 10-game winner, who entered Saturday with the SEC’s second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Though they struck out just twice against him, the Tigers mustered seven hits against the last of Florida’s three weekend stalwarts. They stranded runners in scoring position in two of the first five innings. Faedo gave way to closer Shaun Anderson in the sixth, and the righty fanned Fraley to strand two more.
“We didn’t play bad, but it’s baseball,” shortstop Kramer Robertson said. “They came out on top this game. Nothing to hang our heads about. … We swung the bat well again today against another first-round arm.”
More than one.
In Saturday’s resumption of Thursday’s rain-halted first game of the series, Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan opted to throw freshman Brady Singer. Singer entered the morning with a 7.11 ERA in SEC play.
“That might be the best arm I’ve seen in the Southeastern Conference,” Mainieri said, “and that’s saying something.”
Singer had an electric arm. The ball left his hand with minimal effort, sailing over the plate at 96 mph to accompany a power slider.
A scarcity of power and household names leaves the LSU lineup just one option: extend innings in any way possible while fielding competitive at-bats in hopes of passing the responsibility of run production down the lineup.
Chris Reid accomplished his duty. With two outs and two on in the fifth inning, he went down in the count 1-2 against Singer. Reid fought off two 95-mph fastballs in on his hands, eventually getting a 10-pitch walk.
What followed was what’s now textbook technique for this offense. Following Reid’s walk, LSU erupted for five two-out runs, racing to a 7-1 lead on Greg Deichmann’s first-pitch, three-run double off newly inserted Florida reliever Nick Horvath.
“That’s what we talk about every time,” Deichmann said. “Whether we’re in a hole or whether we’re up three or four runs, that’s all we talk about. Winning your at-bat and getting it to the next guy.”
Singer plunked Bryce Jordan with the bases loaded in the fifth inning — the LSU-record 22nd time Jordan has been hit by a pitch this season. Bryce’s brother, Beau, drew a bases-loaded walk in the next at-bat before Deichmann’s double brought the vocal afternoon crowd to its feet.
Riley Smith, originally scheduled to start the second game of the series, got the call during Saturday morning’s resumption of Thursday’s rain-halted series opener. He threw three innings of laborious, six-hit baseball as his command often eluded him.
“It could have been better,” Smith said at the conclusion of the first game. “But we got a win. So that’s all that matters.”
Similar sentiments echoed four hours later.
“We wish we would have swept,” Deichmann said. “But that’s nothing to shy away from — taking two out of three from them.”
Added Mainieri: “There’s a lot to be proud of, a lot to build upon, but I think our best days are ahead of us.”