VandyBoys walk off No. 23 Florida, 5-4, in series opener

Sophomore Jack Bulger tallied three hits, including a walk-off single, to help the VandyBoys beat No. 23 Florida on Friday night.

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Vanderbilt Athletics

Enrique Bradfield Jr. crosses home plate to give Vanderbilt a 5-4 win over No. 23 Florida on April 15, 2022. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Justin Hershey, Sports Editor

A busy weekend of athletics on West End got off to an exhilarating start on Friday night at Hawkins Field as the VandyBoys (24-9, 6-7) walked-off the No. 23 Florida Gators (21-13, 5-8), 5-4, behind three hits from Jack Bulger.

“It was needed,” Bulger said of the win. “We were looking for something to kickstart us and we played a really good baseball game. We haven’t played many close baseball games in the SEC and to kind of feel the adrenaline of a 4-4 game going into the ninth—it was really good for us.”

Heading into the bottom of the ninth, the teams were tied at four. Enrique Bradfield Jr. led off the inning with a single and it was downhill from there for the Gators. The Vanderbilt speedster stole second base before Dominic Keegan reached on a throwing error. Florida elected to intentionally walk Spencer Jones and then Bulger stepped to the plate and slapped a line drive into right field. It was the sophomore’s third hit of the day and his 12th in his last 17 at-bats (.705).

“I’m just kind of simplifying it, just not thinking about it too much and just trying to win a baseball game,” Bulger said of his recent success at the plate. “Just kind of forgetting about myself and just worrying about my guys and doing anything to help the team win.”

Vanderbilt got timely pitching from its bullpen after an inauspicious start from starter Chris McElvain (ND, 4-2). A leadoff walk to Florida’s Colby Halter to start the game set up a two-run homer for the SEC’s home-run leader Jud Fabian in the game’s second at bat. Fabian’s 14th jack of the season gave the visitors a 2-0 lead before the Gators added another run in the fourth inning thanks to a pair of doubles. They tacked on their fourth of the game in the fifth inning, and knocked McElvain out of the game in the process. The righty threw a season-low 68 pitches in his four innings before Patrick Reilly and Thomas Schultz took over. 

After starting back-to-back Sunday games, Reilly went 3.1 innings-strong for the Commodores, allowing no runs while striking out five. Thomas Schultz (W, 2-1) kept up Reilly’s momentum and picked up the win by getting the games’ final five outs—three of which were strikeouts.

“[Reilly] knew. He was on,” head coach Tim Corbin said of the decision to use Reilly on Friday. “I mean, the situation did fit. It was a situation where he needed to come in midway through the game and pitch like a starter.”

Hunter Barco (ND, 5-2) took the hill for the Gators but like McElvain, he took a no-decision. He was removed from the game after just two innings and it’s been reported that he may be dealing with an illness or possibly even an injury. 

Vanderbilt surely played a part in Barco’s early exit, responding to early Florida pressure with a run in both the first and second innings off of the lefty. After Keegan drew a walk, consecutive singles from Jones and Bulger cut the Florida lead in half in the first before a solo homer from Calvin Hewett in the second tied the ballgame.

In Barco’s relief, Florida righty Nick Ficarrotta cruised through three innings before a bit of small ball allowed the VandyBoys to tie things up in the sixth. The inning featured a walk, a single, a sacrifice bunt, a sacrifice fly and a passed ball to boot that nodded the game at four. Pinch-hitter Jonathan Vastine was credited with the RBI on the sacrifice fly to make it 4-3 before Tate Kolwyck touched home via a passed ball to make it 4-4. 

It looked as if the VandyBoys might break the tie in both the seventh and eighth innings, but it took until the ninth for it to officially happen. They notched three hits across the seventh and eighth frames but left four runners on base and pushed none across, bringing the 4-4 tie into the ninth before Bulger finished it off.

“It’s a one-run win, it’s on a Friday night—those have been tough to come by,” Corbin said. “Regardless of what kind of win it was, we needed to try to get on the right side of things. But the fact that we won a game like this—we’ve certainly not done that in a while. It demanded good pitching, good defensive play and a timely hit here and there, and that was what we got.”

The teams will meet in Game 2 of their three-game set on Saturday night at 6 p.m. CDT with Vanderbilt in search of its first SEC series win since March 20.