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Gators reach College World Series during 13-inning- 5-hour marathon win at Clemson

Written off weeks ago, the Florida baseball team did the improbable behind an unlikely hero to earn a shot at the sport’s ultimate prize.

UF No. 9 hitter Michael Robertson’s 2-run hit into the left center-field gap propelled the unseeded Gators (34-28) to an 11-10 win Sunday night at No. 6 Clemson (44-16) to end a 5-hour, 5-minute marathon in the bottom of the 13th inning and sweep the Tigers in the best-of-three NCAA Super Regional.

The unseeded Gators are headed for the College World Series for the 14th time in school history and ninth time under coach Kevin O’Sullivan. But it is the only the second time, and first sine 1988, the Gators punched their ticket to the eight-team CWA while playing away from Gainesville.

“This is a long season for a reason our guys just keep fighting, fighting. fighting,” O’Sullivan said. “We just stayed the course. It was an up and down season, but we did what we needed to do.

“Here we are.”

Players rushed the field after Robertson’s game-winning hit, scoring Luke Heyman and Tyler Shelnut, and formed a dogpile as dejected Clemson players, coaches and fans looked on at Doug Kingsmore Stadium. Soon, players drenched  O’Sullivan with a water cooler, drawing a huge smile from the 55-year-old coach.

O’Sullivan surely let out a sigh of relief at the sight of Roberston’s game-winning line drive.

The Gators used five pitchers in a game featuring 11 on both sides.

FILE - Florida starting pitcher Jac Caglianone throws during the first inning of a baseball game against TCU at the NCAA College World Series in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, June 21, 2023. Florida, the No. 3 seed in the Stillwater Regional, opens play against second-seeded Nebraska on Friday. Caglianone will start the regional in his usual spot at first base and will pitch Saturday against either host Oklahoma State or Niagara. (AP Photo/Rebecca S. Gratz, File)
Florida starting pitcher Jac Caglianone allowed 4 earned runs and had 6 strikeouts as the first of five Gators’ pitchers duering the team’s 11-10 win at Clemson in 13 innings. (AP Photo/Rebecca S. Gratz, File)

Before the two teams reached extra innings, UF was two outs away from a win.

A two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning by right fielder Ashton Wilson gave UF a 9-6 lead entering the final frame. But Clemson center fielder Cam Cannarella tagged reliever Brandon Neely, the hero of Game 1, for a 3-run homer to tie the game.

Cannarella was not finished keeping Clemson’s hopes alive for a Game 3.

Wilson, a sophomore from Orlando, had a chance to end it in the bottom of the 10th, with runners on first and second base and two outs. But Cannarella chased down Wilson’s shot to deep center field and made an over-the-shoulder catch at the wall to end the Gators’ bid.

When Clemson right fielder Alden Mathes, who was 0 of 6 on the day, hit a home run in the top of the 13th inning on an 0-2 pitcher from freshman Luke McNeillie, the Gators suddenly looked headed for Game 3 Monday.

FILE - Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan before an NCAA regional championship baseball game against Central Michigan on June 3, 2022, in Gainesville, Fla. O'Sullivan and Clemson coach Erik Bakich, who served as assistants together for the 2002 Tigers team that advanced to the College World Series, will now square off for a CWS spot in the best-of-three series starting Saturday, June 8, 2024 -- and all with Jack Leggett still in Clemson's dugout as program development assistant. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough, File)
Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan has led the Gators to nine trips to the College World Series. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough, File)

McNeillie (4-6) pitched the final two innings for the win, while Ethan Darden (5-5) took the loss despite striking out UF sluggers Jac Caglianone on four pitches and Colby Shelton with UF runners on second and third to end the 12th inning.

“It was really back and forth,” O’Sullivans said. “We showed a tremendous amount of resiliency.”

O’Sullivan has never had a team with fewer than 47 wins or more than 19 losses reach the CWS among UF’s eight previous qualifiers.

The Gators appeared in control much of the day.

Caglianone set the table with a 2-run home run in the first inning; Shelton, an Alabama transfer shortstop, pushed the Gators ahead with two clutch hits and 3 RBI to make it 5-2 in the fifth; catcher Brody Donay added a 2-run homer in the sixth to stretch the lead to 7-4.

Clemson scored twice in the top of the eighth to cut it to 7-6, but Wilson answered with his two-run homer to put UF in command.

But Cannaerella’s game-tying effort on the first pitch by Neely set the stage for the drawn-out drama to come.

Edgar Thompson can be reached at moc.lenitnesodnalro@nospmohtge

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