The Gators were the last team to leave Omaha disappointed in 2011. In 2012, they are one of the first.
Top-ranked Florida (47-20) will leave the College World Series winless after a 5-4 loss to Kent State (47-19) in an elimination game Monday.
“I’ve been able to make it out here three times and all three times I’ve been just as disappointed,” UF catcher Mike Zunino said. “It’s one of those things where you don’t want it to end.”
Errors proved costly for the Gators during this year’s stay in Omaha. They committed five fielding miscues in just two games, including two early mistakes against the Golden Flashes.
In the bottom of the first, a throwing error by Florida shortstop Nolan Fontana allowed Kent State’s Jimmy Rider to reach base with one out. Rider eventually scored an unearned run to put the Gators in a 1-0 hole.
Making matters worse for Florida heading into the bottom of the second was the abrupt exit of starter Hudson Randall (9-3). Randall, who took the loss for the Gators, left the game after the first frame due to heat-related issues.
“I could tell he was laboring a little bit,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “I went out there just to give him a little breather to catch his breath. Then when I went out there, it was obvious he was having a little trouble breathing.”
Crawford came on in relief in the bottom of the second, but the defense behind him was not much improved.
After Crawford surrendered a leadoff single to Golden Flashes’ designated hitter Jason Bagoly, Alex Miklos reached base on a fielding error by UF third baseman Josh Tobias. Spurred by the Tobias error, Kent State plated three more unearned runs in the second frame.
“We made three errors the first night, we made two today, and they ended up coming back to haunt us a little bit,” O’Sullivan said.
Florida’s defensive mistakes Monday came on the heels of a three-error performance in a 7-3 loss to South Carolina on Saturday. Trailing 5-3 headed into the top of ninth, the Gators sent Steven “Paco” Rodriguez to the mound.
The Gamecocks scored twice in the frame to double their lead to four as a result of three miscues: a wild pitch by Rodriguez, a Rodriguez throwing error and another throwing error by first baseman Vickash Ramjit.
“Very sloppy on defense, especially late in the game,” UF assistant coach Brad Weitzel said Saturday. “We still [had] a chance, we [were] two runs down.”
While defense played a role in Florida’s early exit from Omaha, its inability to take advantage of scoring opportunities proved costly. The Gators put the leadoff man on base 11 times in 18 innings during the College World Series.
However, UF only scored runs in four of those 11 frames.
Against Kent State, Florida loaded the bases in the seventh and ninth innings. Trailing by three runs, the Gators put their first three runners on in the seventh inning.
Zunino singled up the middle to cut the deficit to two for designated hitter Brian Johnson. With perhaps Florida’s best chance at a rally at stake, Johnson plated a run but at the cost of hitting into a 4-6-3 double play.
It was the last run the Gators scored Monday.
“Our team battled through some adversity today, and I thought they did a nice job battling back in the middle innings,” O’Sullivan said.
In the ninth inning, UF second baseman Casey Turgeon stepped up to the plate with the bases loaded and one out. Facing a 3-1 count, Turgeon took a pitch outside he believed to be a ball. It was called a strike.
On the next pitch, a Turgeon check swing on a ball outside sent him to the dugout. Left fielder Justin Shafer flew out to right field for the final out of the Gators’ season.
“My first gut instinct (on Turgeon’s check swing) was hoping it was going to be ball four,” said Zunino, who was on second base during the at-bat.
“[Kent State] appealed, and it wasn’t. I thought the umpire did a great job the whole game. So I thought they were good calls.”
Monday’s defeat was likely the final time Florida’s nine MLB draft prospects will play together under O’Sullivan. Ten of the 20 players to suit-up in the CWS did so for the final time in a Gators uniform.
“In the end, it’s just another ball game,” Tucker said. “But it’s my last, and obviously, I’m not going to get another chance.”