May 26, 2011 8:02:00 AM
HOOVER, Ala. -- With one swing Wednesday, the University of Florida baseball team erased a three-run deficit and forced Mississippi State into a do-or-die situation at the Southeastern Conference tournament.
Designated hitter Brian Johnson'' grand slam in the bottom of the seventh inning gave Florida a one-run lead that it turned into a 7-5 win in the second game of the opening round at Regions Park.
The Bulldogs had scored two runs in the top half of the inning to build a 5-2 lead. But two free bases conceded by reliever Taylor Stark set the plate for reliever Luis Pollorena, who, though ever-reliable out of the bullpen and as a starter this season, threw three fastballs to Johnson, who took the third one over the right-field wall.
"When I first hit, I thought it was going way right," Johnson said. "I remember the wind blowing out to left, and when I looked up it was staying straight as an arrow, so I just kept running."
Johnson''s only hit of the game helped third-seeded Florida (42-15) earn a matchup against seventh-seeded University of Alabama, which beat second-seeded Arkansas 7-4 in the first game Wednesday.
Arkansas will face MSU (34-22) at 9:30 a.m. today in an elimination game.
While Johnson''s grand slam was the turning point in the game, MSU coach John Cohen was left to rue how walks (six) and hit batters (two) contributed two baserunners for Johnson''s homer.
"I felt like we were gonna be able to throw it in the strike zone and we just didn''t do it," Cohen said. "That''s the thing that''s carried us all year in the seventh, eighth, and ninth inning. When you miss big, there''s two things that happen: it affects the strike-zone and it gives tremendous confidence to the hitter. That''s why small misses, even if they''re misses, they''re very, very important. We had way too many big misses."
Though Pollorena gave up the game-winner, Cohen didn''t think the pitch was bad; he thought the number of balls starter Evan Mitchell and Taylor Stark threw ahead of him expanded the strike zone.
Pollorena gave up a single to load the bases for Johnson, but Cohen went with Pollorena a batter ahead of Johnson, though Mike Zunino was a right-hander.
Caleb Reed, who had his longest outing of the year Saturday against LSU, was warming up in the bullpen to get ready to face one or two batters.
"Caleb was typical Caleb style -- he''s such an unbelievable competitor -- he was getting loose in the pen and if we needed him for an out or two, we were gonna use him," Cohen said. "We just couldn''t get him loose enough, fast enough. We just weren''t counting on the two walks to start the seventh inning.
"We felt like Pollo was gonna attack the strike zone. He did, but it was belt-high and credit to Johnson for getting there."
The home run overshadowed a strong start from Mitchell, a freshman right-hander, who made his first start since a short-lived outing against Arkansas on April 17.
Mitchell gave up two earned runs on five hits in five innings. He threw 108 pitches, walked four and struck out five. He had a couple of shaky moments, including having runners on the corners in the first and getting behind on 3-1 counts to two of the first three batters he faced. Mitchell gave up a run that inning and another in the fourth, though he escaped major damage after walking the bases loaded and walking in a run.
"I was kind of nervous in the first inning, just to get it going," Mitchell said. "I felt like I could get my fastball over and on the corners. I got behind on some counts, which is something I need to work on."
The Bulldogs didn''t help their cause, registering just seven hits and getting no hits and just one RBI from No. 3 and No. 4 three and four hitters Jarrod Parks and Jaron Shepherd.
Parks is 4-of-26 in his last nine games.
The Bulldogs also struck out 12 times.
MSU''s playmaker was second baseman Nick Vickerson, whose third-inning triple drove in two runs and gave MSU a 2-1 lead. He added a solo home run to lead off the sixth and gave MSU a 3-2 lead, only to watch two teammates strike out and one fly out behind him.
To have what seemed to be a comfortable lead and lose in heart-breaking fashion won''t affect how the Bulldogs come back against Arkansas, Vickerson said.
"I don''t think it''s gonna be that tough," Vickerson said. "We''ve got a tough group of guys. We''ve got a lot of senior leadership. It''s tough to lose a game like that, but we''ll come back tomorrow optimistic and try to get us another win."
Junior left-hander Nick Routt (2-2, 3.83 ERA) will pitch today against the Razorbacks. Routt lost his start at Fayetteville, Ark., this season, giving up six earned runs on eight hits in three innings.
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