May 28, 2011
HOOVER, ALA.- --- In all likelihood, Georgia has clinched an NCAA Regional bid with its 4-3 win over third-ranked Florida Saturday in the SEC Tournament at Regions Park.
The Bulldogs (31-29), who have played the nation's toughest rated schedule and own an RPI of No. 16, have won three in a row here to assure it will finish the tournament with the NCAA required record above .500. After falling to third-ranked Vanderbilt 10-0 on Wednesday where they managed just one hit, the Bulldogs have won three straight elimination games, beating Auburn, top-ranked South Carolina and now the Gators. USC, Florida and the Commodores shared this season's SEC title. Georgia's win over Florida forced a semifinal rematch with the Gators that is scheduled to begin at 5:45 p.m. CT Saturday. The winner takes on Vanderbilt in Sunday's final.
In game one Saturday, Georgia (31-29) went on top 2-0 in the first with a two-out rally. Junior second baseman Levi Hyams led off the game with a base hit and then Florida left-hander Brian Johnson came back to strikeout centerfielder Conor Welton and shortstop Kyle Farmer. Junior left fielder Zach Cone laced a run-scoring triple. It was his second this year and 11th of his career. Cone scored on a throwing error by Johnson as he tried to retire designated hitter Brett DeLoach. On a 2-2 count to Jonathan Hester, Johnson bounced one in the dirt and Hester started towards second base. Catcher Mike Zunino's throw hit a kneeling Johnson in the side of the head as DeLoach took third. Johnson was forced to leave the game on a stretcher, and Florida brought in Anthony DeSclafani who recorded the final out.
The Gators (43-16) responded with a two-out rally of their own and chased sophomore left-hander Earl Daniels who was making his first career start. After a leadoff walk to Nolan Fontana, he retired Bryson Smith before issuing a walk to Preston Tucker. He retired Zunino, the SEC Player of the Year, on a flyout and then designated hitter Tyler Thompson, who entered the game for Johnson who also hits when he pitches, lined a two-run double to tie the contest. Georgia looked to junior left-hander Chase Hawkins who got the final out of the first. Hawkins and the Bulldogs dodged a bullet in the second when the Gators loaded the bases with two outs. Hawkins gave up a single to Cody Dent, hit Fontana with a pitch and walked Bryson Smith to bring up Tucker. Hawkins got him to pop out to third to keep it 2-2.
In the third, the Bulldogs strung together three consecutive singles from Welton, Farmer and then Cone who notched his second RBI of the afternoon. DeLoach delivered a sacrifice fly to make it 4-2. In the bottom of the frame, Georgia turned to junior right-hander Michael Palazzone who made just his second relief appearance of the season to go with 15 starts. He started the first game of the SEC Tournament on Wednesday, going six innings and allowing six runs in a 10-0 loss to third-ranked Vanderbilt.
The Gators made it a one-run affair after a two-out throwing error by third baseman Colby May allowed a run to score. May was in the lineup for the injured Curt Powell who was hit by a pitch from Gamecock closer Matt Price in Friday's win over top-ranked South Carolina. Powell has a cracked bone in his left hand as a result of being hit by a pitch. The Gators had a chance for more with two in scoring position but Palazzone retired Tucker on a groundout.
Palazzone gave the Bulldogs four innings, allowing just one unearned run on three hits with no walks and two strikeouts. Georgia looked to sophomore right-hander Bryan Benzor to start the bottom of the seventh with the Bulldogs clinging to a 4-3 advantage. Benzor provided two more scoreless innings and then sophomore Tyler Maloof came on in the ninth. He registered his 18th save to tie the school record he now shares with Joshua Fields, a first round draft pick in 2008 by Seattle.
Georgia won in front of injured teammate Johnathan Taylor, who suffered a broken neck in an outfield collision earlier this season in a game against Florida State. On Monday, the team stopped by the Shepherd Center in Atlanta where he is doing rehabilitation. He told the team that if they made it to Saturday in the SEC Tournament, he would be in Hoover for the big game. Taylor was in the dugout with his teammates to witness the victory.
"This was a huge win, and really the past two wins have been two of the biggest for this program," said Georgia coach David Perno. "This team has fought hard all year and to come back from the way we started here Wednesday says a lot about them. It was extra special to have J.T. (Taylor) here, and the guys were real excited. It was an emotional start to the game and then they had their starting pitcher go down, and it was tight all the way. We came through for him earlier this year when J.T. came to the Tech game at Turner Field, and I was so happy we were able to do it again today. This means a lot for everybody associated with the program. "
"Bryan (Benzor) and Michael (Palazzone) were outstanding again today, a gritty performance and of course, Tyler (Maloof) did his thing in the ninth," Perno added. The Bulldogs are now 11-5 in one-run games this year including 8-2 in league contests. Georgia is now 16-17 against top 25 teams this year, and that leads the SEC. The NCAA announces the tournament field of 64 on Monday at 12:30 p.m. ET live on ESPN.