Our recollection of the top ten Florida Gator games of the past decade continues today with #8, a postseason college baseball thriller between Florida and Mississippi State that ended with what I like to call the “Tucker Bomb”. Here’s hoping this segment helps that nickname catch on.
For those of you who missed the first two installments of this segment, let’s bring you up to speed real quick. This list, as you may have noticed by now, includes athletic competitions from all sports. #10 in this countdown was the “Heave To Cleve,” i.e. the game where Feleipe Franks bombed Tennessee to death in 2017, and #9 was Nicole DeWitt’s “War Damn Walkoff” in the 2015 Women’s College World Series against Auburn.
So with that out of the way, let’s get to #8: the Tucker Bomb.
Date: June 13, 2011
Location: Gainesville, FL (NCAA Gainesville Super Regional- Game 3)
The backstory: a young Florida team in 2010 had allowed a self-destructing Miami Hurricane team to hand them free tickets to the College World Series, where they got blown out by UCLA and then bounced by FSU. A year later, the Gators had all the same pieces back, but this time looked to be more than just a team capable of getting to Omaha. They looked like a real contender to win the whole tournament throughout the year. And Florida bolstered that theory by breezing through their Regional to the Super Regionals- college baseball’s Sweet 16- where they met Mississippi State, a team they’d beaten two out of three times in Starkville back in the regular season.
The setup: Florida had no trouble with MSU in the best-of-three series opener, as catcher Mike Zunino doubled in two runs and later blasted a round-tripper in the Gators’ 11-1 rout. Despite not being nearly as dominant the next day in Game Two, Florida still seemed to be in excellent shape to return to Omaha with a 2-0 lead after six innings. But Mississippi State rallied to tie it in the seventh, and after Florida had re-taken the lead in the eighth, the Bulldogs’ Nick Vickerson launched a walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth to force a decisive Game Three on Sunday afternoon.
The game: Early indications were that Florida was headed for a gargantuan blowout to cruise onto Omaha in style. With its pitching rotation having taken a beating the past two days, Mississippi State manager John Cohen gave Luis Pollorena the start- who promptly strode to the mound and began tossing batting practice.
Mike Zunino got the party started with two outs in the first inning. Pollorena left one over the heart of the plate and Zunino sent it into the clouds before it finally fell back down to earth several feet beyond the left center field fence to give Florida a 1-0 lead. An inning later, Daniel Pigott came to bat with left fielder Tyler Thompson on first, and he sent a lightning bolt over the left field wall to make it 3-0 Gators. Up to the plate next stepped Vickash Ramjit, the #8 man in the lineup who hadn’t homered all year. He teed off on a fastball and belted it over the left center field wall to adjust the scoreboard to 4-0 in favor of Florida.
But no sooner did the Bulldogs pull Pollorena than the tenor of the game begin to change. Pollorena’s reliever, Devin Jones, came in and held the Gators at bay, throwing three scoreless innings to keep Mississippi State in the game. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs put together a rally in the fourth inning as Cody Freeman and Jarrod Parks reached on back to back singles. That brought up Nick Vickerson, the hero from Game Two, who crushed a three run homer over the left center field fence to draw MSU within 4-3.
Three innings later, Mississippi State struck again, and took its first in-game lead all weekend. With two on and two outs in the seventh, Vickerson singled to right field to tie the game at four apiece. Two batters later, Brent Brownlee punched a single through the 5-6 hole to drive in a pair of runs and put the Bulldogs on top 6-4. And just like that, Florida- which had dominated Game One from start to finish, led the entire way in Game Two before letting it slip away on a walk-off, and had led throughout the first six innings of Game Three- suddenly found itself down two runs with just nine outs remaining to save its season.
Perhaps feeling the pressure of the moment get to him, MSU reliever Daryl Norris walked Bryson Smith and then Nolan Fontana to begin the bottom of the seventh. Having seen more than enough of Norris, Cohen yanked him in favor of Caleb Reed to pitch to the most dangerous part of Florida’s lineup: #3 hitter Zunino and cleanup hitter Preston Tucker. Zunino then advanced the runners with a swinging bunt, setting the stage for Tucker with runners on second and third with one out. A base hit would tie the game, and even a sacrifice fly would cut the deficit in half.
However, Tucker- who still stands as the Gators’ all-time leader in hits, RBI and total bases- wasn’t thinking that way. On a 3-1 pitch, he got ahold of a hanging breaking ball and smashed a line drive to deep center field. Off the bat, it appeared to be a game tying double over the center fielder’s head and off the base of the wall.
But the ball just kept traveling farther and farther, and center fielder CT Bradford kept sprinting back farther and farther away from the ball’s source. About four feet from the warning track, Bradford looked up and realized he wasn’t going to be able to make a play on it. He slowed down and trotted the last few feet to the wall in resignation as the missile shot over his head- and the wall.
The ball cleared the fence in dead center field (exactly 400 feet away from home plate) and bounced off the metal pillar of the ESPN camera tower beyond the wall. That meant it had traveled some 410-420 feet before finally returning to sea level, safely earning it the categorization of an absolute bomb. Specifically, a Tucker Bomb, one of 57 homers in Tucker’s career. But this one had an effect that the other 56 did not- it gave Florida a 7-6 lead in the bottom of the seventh after the Gators’ season had seemingly been left for dead just five minutes earlier.
Having been given new life following the Tucker Bomb, Tommy Toledo took the mound again in the eighth, where he bounced back from the 2-RBI single he’d surrendered an inning earlier by mowing down the Bulldogs 1-2-3. Pigott then gave Florida an insurance run with the Gators’ fifth long ball of the day, a solo shot over the left center field wall to make it 8-6. Moments later, back to the hill came Toledo to finish it all off.
Naturally, with two outs in the ninth, up stepped Vickerson, representing Mississippi State’s last chance to save its season. It almost felt like something out of a movie. The Gators didn’t deserve to win this game if they couldn’t finally retire Vickerson in a key spot, but oh, what a perfectly wrapped up storyline it would be if they did to book passage to Omaha. This was their chance to make up for all the damage he’d done throughout the weekend.
Sure enough, Vickerson found a pitch he liked and blasted it deep to left center field. But he’d missed this one by about a hundredth of an inch. It didn’t have quite enough legs to leave the yard, and it died on the warning track in Tyler Thompson’s glove to start the party at McKethan Stadium. After more than three hours of offensive warfare, Florida had finally locked up its spot in the College World Series.
The aftermath: As had been the feeling about the team throughout the season, this team was ready to do more than just play in Omaha. They were ready to make a run in Omaha after the Tucker Bomb. And they did.
Florida clobbered Texas 8-4 in the opening round of the College World Series to put themselves in the driver’s seat of their pool. The Gators then knocked off Vanderbilt 3-1 in the winner’s bracket game to reach the CWS semifinals, getting two shots to win that semifinal game as a result of starting off 2-0. As it turned out, they’d only need one shot, and dispatched Vanderbilt again to reach the College World Series finals for just the second time in school history.
But a national championship wasn’t in the cards for this team, and South Carolina just deserved it more. Florida blew numerous golden scoring opportunities before literally throwing the game away in the eleventh inning of Game One. Devastated by the loss, the Gators played dead the next day and lost, 5-2, as the Gamecocks claimed back to back national championships.
The game’s legacy: the 2011 team will forever be remembered as one of the most special squads in Gator baseball history. Kevin O’Sullivan has put together some insanely talented groups, but that was the first team of his to ever truly challenge for a national title. It set the expectation for the teams that followed, as Florida would return to Omaha in 2012, and then in four straight years from 2015-2018. It turned out that Florida was still six years away from celebrating its first national title, with a new batch of kids, but it was the run that this 2011 team made that really put Sully and the Gators on the map.
But where, exactly, would this team be in the history books if not for that Tucker Bomb? A game that O’Sullivan called “One of the best I have ever been involved with” had flipped completely in Mississippi State’s favor as the Gators were beginning to run out of outs. Had Tucker not been able to reach safely or at least made a productive, run-scoring out, it would have been up to Josh Adams, who went hitless on the day; had he not come through either, Florida would have blown its best chance to score of the day and left it up to the top of their lineup in the bottom of the ninth to save the season. Would they have pulled it out? Nobody will ever know, but it’s very much within the realm of possibility that they would not have.
The Tucker Bomb made all that hypothetical thinking irrelevant. Sure, giving up two walks right after taking the lead is a supremely bad path to take for the team with the lead, but Tucker’s bat had been utterly silent the entire weekend. He’d gone hitless in each of the first two games before finally breaking through in the fifth inning of Game Three. He still had to overcome his struggles at the plate that weekend and break through with a big hit after his teammates were handed free passes.
And he did. And because he did, Sully’s Gators got to continue their program-defining joyride to the national championship series- a joyride that announced Florida’s presence among college baseball’s elite for years and potentially even decades to come.