GAINESVILLE, Fla. – All that was left was the celebration. Or so it seemed.
Michael O'Neal dominated Florida for 8 2/3 innings.
After Blake Austin’s two-out home run in the top of the ninth, Auburn led Florida 4-1 at McKethan Field and was three outs from winning a crucial game and a crucial series. Left-hander Michael O’Neal had dazzled the Gators for eight innings, throwing just 88 pitches. But a chain of events unfolded that left Auburn’s baseball team stunned and wondering how it got away.
Josh Tobias’ two-out three-run homer off O’Neal tied it at 4-4. Auburn coach John Pawlowski then called on Reid Carter, passing over dominating closer Terrance Dedrick. Carter walked Harrison Bader. Pinch-hitter Zack Powers hit a popup that feel between second baseman Jordan Ebert and right fielder Hunter Kelley. Bader never slowed down, scoring all the way from first to give the Gators a 5-4 victory.
How heartbreaking was it for Auburn? Here’s what could have been:
Auburn could have passed Texas A&M and Kentucky in the SEC standings and been in ninth place, closing in on Florida, Mississippi State and Alabama. It could have gone into Sunday’s game with a six-game winning streak.
Instead, the Tigers must bounce back from the most devastating loss of the season. Instead of being in ninth, they are in 11th place. Their hopes of squeezing into an NCAA regional took a major hit and could all but vanish if they don’t win on Sunday.
“There’s not much I can say to make anybody in this group feel any better,” a somber Pawlowski said after the game. “We all saw what we saw.”
The ninth started with O’Neal hitting Casey Turgeon with a pitch. Carter went to work in the Auburn bullpen. Taylor Gushue grounded out and Justin Shafer struck out looking. Auburn was one out away. But the right-handed Tobias, facing the left-handed O’Neal for the fourth time, belted the first pitch he saw to tie the game.
Pawlowski didn’t even visit the mound to visit O’Neal. He saw no reason.
“I thought he did an outstanding job and commanded the strike zone,” Pawlowski said. “They hadn’t hit the ball hard on him all night.”
Dominating right-handed Auburn closer Terrance Dedrick never even warmed up. Right-hander Trey Cochran-Gill warmed up but did not get the call Pawlowski instead turned to Carter, who has pitched mostly in nonconference games, in a situation he’d not faced before. A walk and a bloop double and it was over.
“Tough way to lose a ball game,” Pawlowski said. “I thought our kids played hard and competed all night long. Micheal O’Neal’s ball had as much movement as it has all year. Unfortunately, that last inning it just didn’t work out for us.”
Auburn fell to 30-20 on the season and 10-16 in the SEC with four league games left. Florida broke a five-game SEC losing streak and improved to 28-24 overall and 13-13 in the SEC.
The Tigers took a 1-0 lead in the second when Patrick Savage doubled and scored on Jordan Ebert’s single. They made it 2-0 in the third when Savage singled home Garrett Cooper.
Florida made it 2-1 in the fifth on an unearned run resulting from Cooper’s wild throw after O’Neal picked a runner off first.
Kelley led off the eighth with a solo home run to give Auburn a 3-1 lead and Austin’s homer made it 4-1.
Savage had his best night of the season at the plate, going 4-for-4. Ebert was 3-for-4 and Kelley 2-for-5.
Carter suffered his first loss, falling to 1-1. Florida reliever Mike Vinson gave up Austin’s home run but got his first win of the season.
Sunday’s rubber game starts at noon CST.