Florida won the game 6-1. But it was a crucial call on the bases that sent the would-be tying run back to third and the Gators on to their first College World Series title.
For a brief moment on Tuesday night in Omaha, LSU appeared to draw even with Florida for the first time in the College World Series. It was the seventh inning of Game 2, a frame the Tigers entered down 2-0. Zach Watson started the inning with an infield single, and then stole second. Josh Smith brought him home with a double, cutting the Tigers deficit in half. Jake Slaughter followed with a single, putting runners on the corners with nobody out.
That brought catcher Michael Papierski to the plate. He hit a grounder to Florida second baseman Deacon Liput, and with the Gators wisely guarding against the big inning and playing back for a double play, it appeared that, at worst, the Tigers would tie the game. At first, it seemed that was what happened.
Then, everyone noticed second base umpire Steve Mattingly with his hands in the air.
First, a trip to the NCAA rule book. On any potential force play, “the runner must slide on the ground before the base and in a direct line between the two bases. Interference shall be called if the runner slides … out of the baseline in the direction of the fielder and alters the play of the fielder (with or without making contact).
With that, let’s get back to Mattingly and the play at hand. As Slaughter beared down on Florida shortstop Dalton Guthrie, he veered toward the outfield to try to break up the potential double play. Guthrie was able to complete the play but that turned out to be moot. Mattingly called Slaughter for interference, which resulted in an automatic out at first, and sent Smith, who looked to be the tying run, back to third base.
Courtesy of Gainesville CBS sports reporter Grace Remington, you can judge the call for yourself.
Mattingly got it right. Slaughter clearly violated the rule, negating Smith’s run. Closer Michael Byrne, who came on earlier in the inning, got Beau Jordan to line out to center to end the threat. Two innings later, the Gators celebrated their first College World Series in program history.
The Gators ultimately won the game 6-1 after tacking on four runs in the eighth inning, but that doesn’t accurately convey how close the game was for most of the night. In fact, the Tigers had another great opportunity in the top half of the eighth, putting runners on first and third with nobody out for the second straight frame. Byrne fanned Antoine Duplantis for the first out, and then, in a smart bit of backwards bullpen management from head coach Kevin O’Sullivan, turned the ball over to starter Jackson Kowar.
Kowar’s first assignment was cleanup man Greg Deichmann, who was a second-round pick of the A’s earlier this month. On the first pitch, LSU head coach Paul Manieri started the runner at first, hoping to stay out of the same fate that befell his team one inning earlier. Deichmann hit a grounder to Florida first baseman J.J. Schwartz that took him toward second base. With the double play out of the question, though, he quickly fired home, nailing a sliding Kramer Robertson for the second out. Kowar then got the third out with a lineout to center by Watson on what looked like a carbon copy of the liner that ended the Tigers seventh.
In two consecutive innings late in the game, the Gators put the tying run on third with zero outs. In both of those innings, they failed to get that run home. The Gators offense made sure not to give them that chance in the ninth.
Six of the first seven Gators to step to the plate in the ninth reached base, with the only out coming on a sacrifice bunt. By time the inning was over, they had extended the lead to five runs. Kowar, one of their best pitchers all season, wouldn’t need nearly that much insurance, allowing a single but otherwise handling the Tigers, finishing off the Gators first national championship in their 103-year history.
Pitcher Tyler Dyson was the surprising hero of the game for the Gators. After making 22 of his 23 appearances this season out of the bullpen, Dyson got his second start of the year on the game’s biggest stage. He allowed one run on three hits in six innings, striking out two while walking two.
On the other side, LSU starter Jared Poche was done in by his defense. He went 5 2/3 innings, but two errors by first baseman Nick Coomes resulted in two unearned runs, which game the Gators the cushion they had before they exploded for the four runs in the eighth.