Behind a dominant performance by righty Brady Singer, who set a College World Series finals record with 12 strikeouts, the Florida Gators are one win a way from their first CWS championship. The Gators defeated their SEC rivals, the LSU Tigers, in the first game of the best-of-three finals on Monday night at Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park, 4-3.
Singer, 6-foot-5 sophomore who was a second-round 2015 pick by the Blue Jays out of high school, consistently got ahead early in the count with a lively 92-94 mph fastball and then expanded the zone with his slider. He threw 20 first-pitch strikes on the night, netted 16 swings and misses from among his 112 pitches, and scattered eight hits and two walks while allowing three runs in seven-plus innings of work. Michael Byrne, who led the NCAA with 18 saves, pitched the final two innings to seal the victory.
The Gators, who have been to Omaha 11 times and lost in the finals in 2005 and ’11, advanced by beating TCU on Saturday night. The Tigers, who have won six titles, most recently in 2009, beat No. 1 seed Oregon State to advance. The two SEC rivals faced each other back in late March in Gainesville, with Florida taking two out of three. Now they have a significant leg up; since 2003, the team winning the first game of the finals has taken the series 10 out of 14 times, seven via sweep.
Coming into the game, the top story revolved around LSU coach Paul Mainieri’s controversial decision to start fifth-year senior Russell Reynolds, a 6-foot-1 righty who hadn’t started a game since March 2015 and this year had been lit for an 8.59 ERA in 14 relief outings totaling 14 2/3 innings. By doing so, he would give an extra day of rest to Game 2 starter Jared Poché, who threw eight innings and 102 pitches last Wednesday (June 21) and Game 3 starter Alex Lange, who threw 7 1/3 innings and 115 pitches on Friday (June 23).
For a while, the gambit paid off. Reynolds, who hadn’t gone longer than 1 2/3 innings in any outing this season, allowed just a pair of singles through the first 3 1/3 innings, and catcher Michael Papierski erased both, gunning down shortstop Dalton Guthrie and centerfielder Ryan Larson as they attempted to steal, the latter on a pitchout. Reynolds got only two swings and misses in that span, and threw first-pitch strikes to just three of those 10 hitters, but he struck out two, both looking, and benefited from centerfielder Zach Watson running down Florida designated hitter Christian Hicks’ third-inning drive at the warning track.
But Reynolds couldn’t find the plate in his second time through the order, generally missing glove side with his fastball. With one out in the fourth, he walked Guthrie, first baseman JJ Schwarz and rightfielder Nelson Maldonado, Florida’s 2-3-4 hitters, at one point throwing seven straight balls. Finally, Mainieri turned to freshman lefty Nick Bush, and it didn’t go well. Shortstop Kramer Robertson made an excellent over-the-shoulder catch of a ball off the bat of Florida leftfielder Austin Langworthy deep in the park’s ample foul territory, but Guthrie tagged up and scored easily, and the other two runners advanced as well when Robertson threw home wildly instead of throwing to third. Third baseman Jonathan India brought both home with a ground rule double to centerfield, giving Florida a 3-0 lead.
“I got a little greedy, trying to squeeze one more inning out of [Reynolds] there,” conceded Mainieri during the in-game ESPN interview. “He kind of lost command and walked three batters.”
Singer was electrifying early, whiffing five through the first three innings while allowing just one hit and a walk. After allowing back-to-back singles to leftfielder Antoine Duplantis and rightfielder Greg Deichmann to start the fourth, he recovered to strike out Watson, third baseman Josh Smith and DH Beau Jordan on a combined 12 pitches to escape the jam.
He finally faltered in the sixth, serving up a solo homer to rightfield to Duplantis, then loading the bases with two outs via a hit by pitch, a walk and an RBI single from that same Watson-Smith-Jordan trio. With his pitch count at 92, he retired Papierski, who on Saturday against Oregon State became the first player in CWS history to homer from both sides of the plate, on a popup that very nearly fell into no-man’s land in shallow leftfield before being snagged by a charging Langworthy.
As so often happens, Langworthy led off the seventh, and he helped restore Florida’s lead by ripping a double into the right-center gap, taking third on a sacrifice and scoring on catcher Mike Rivera’s single. Rivera got as far as third base via a productive out and a wild pitch before reliever Hunter Newman escaped by whiffing second baseman Deacon Liput.
The insurance run proved important. Singer, who convinced coach Kevin O’Sullivan to leave him in for one more batter, began the eighth by getting ahead of Deichmann 0-2 before yielding a hustle double on his 112th and final pitch of the night. Byrne, who made first-team All-American as a sophomore, allowed a liner into the right-center gap by Smith. Deichmann scored, but Smith was thrown out advancing to second base on a great throw by centerfielder Nick Horvath, who had entered the game as a pinch runner in the top of the frame.
But LSU could get no closer. Byrne got Jordan to ground out, then worked a 1-2-3 ninth to nail down the win for Florida.
The Gators will send freshman righty Tyler Dyson to the mound for Game 2 on Tuesday, in just his second start of the year. LSU will counter with senior lefty Poché, who holds the school record with 39 career wins.