The Golden Flashes survived shaky relief pitching to protect a one-run lead in the ninth inning and beat Florida 5-4 on Monday. The loss eliminated the top-seeded Gators, who made it to the finals a year ago.
“It wasn’t the prettiest thing in the end,” Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said. “It was gut-wrenching no matter who you were rooting for. Even if you weren’t rooting for anybody, that was tough to watch. But we found a way. That’s what this team has done all year long, and we’re still here.”
The Flashes (47-19) bounced back from an 8-1 loss to Arkansas to post what Stricklin called the biggest win in program history.
“We belong here,” he said. “That’s the most important thing that we wanted as a team, as a program and as a university was to make a statement that we belong here. We’re not a fluke. We’re a really good baseball team.”
Kent State scored four unearned runs and another on a wild pitch, then held on as Florida chipped away at the lead with a run in the sixth inning and two more in the seventh.
The Gators (47-20) loaded the bases with one out in the ninth against Michael Clark and Josh Pierce.
Pierce fought back from a 3-0 count to strike out Casey Turgeon when Turgeon couldn’t check his swing and got called out on an appeal to the third-base umpire. Justin Shafer flew out to right to end the game, with Pierce pumping his right fist once the ball landed in right fielder T.J. Sutton’s glove.
“It’s an unfortunate way to end the season, but I think Kent State deserves a lot of credit for the way they played today,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “They hung in there, got a big strikeout at the end, and our guys hung in there right to the last out. So we have nothing to be ashamed of.”
The Gators committed five errors in two games after coming to Omaha seventh in the nation in fielding.
Their pitching plans were upset when Hudson Randall (9-3) left after the first inning because of heat-related symptoms.
It was 95 degrees at the start of the game, making it the warmest first pitch at the CWS since June 11, 2001. Before Monday, Kent State hadn’t played a game in weather warmer than 82 degrees all season.
It was Randall who struggled, though. At one point O’Sullivan made a mound visit and athletic trainers brought water to Hudson, the best postseason pitcher in program history. Hudson finished the inning with one unearned run scored against him. O’Sullivan wouldn’t let him come out for the second because it was apparent he was ill.
“He looked fine before the game,” O’Sullivan said. “I could tell he was laboring a little bit.”
Ryan Bores (10-3) pitched six straight innings for the win, and Pierce earned his third save.
Kent State had 12 hits against four pitchers, but it was Florida’s continuing problems in the field that allowed the Flashes to build a 5-1 lead.
George Roberts drove in runs each of the first two innings after shortstop Nolan Fontana and third baseman Josh Tobias committed errors.
Kent State’s emotions ran the gamut as Florida threatened in the ninth.
Three outs away from a pulling the upset, Clark walked Preston Tucker on four straight pitches. He was 2-0 against Mike Zunino when Stricklin called on Pierce, who also struggled with his control and put Zunino on.
After pinch hitter Cody Dent moved over the runners with a sacrifice, Pierce hit Daniel Pigott in the shoulder to load the bases.
“I don’t think I was nervous. I was more mad and annoyed,” shortstop Jimmy Rider said.
Catcher David Lyon said, “I was kind of on the same page as Jimmy – getting annoyed. We were throwing high fastballs, and I was hoping they wouldn’t hit it over the fence. We were struggling a little at the end and then found a way to get it done.”
Pierce fell behind 3-0 to Turgeon before throwing a strike. It looked like Turgeon would walk – TV replays indicated strike two was outside – but he couldn’t hold back on his check swing.
To Stricklin, it seemed like an eternity before third base umpire Jeff Henrichs made the call on appeal.
“I don’t know if the home-plate umpire blinked. I was surprised he didn’t call it, and it worried me,” Stricklin said. “I knew David was going to ask. But the longer you wait on those calls, the longer that third base umpire has to wait, the tougher it is for him to call a strike.”
Shafer put a good swing on Pierce’s next pitch, but Sutton was able to chase down the fly to end the game.
‘’Trust me, our bullpen is really good,” Stricklin said. “They weren’t as good as we’d like them to be tonight. But bottom line ... the entire pitching staff found a way to get it done, and we move on.”