OMAHA, Neb. | Strong pitching can take you a long way in baseball.
When the strength isn’t there, however, a game can get away in a hurry.
Florida’s season has been built around a powerful pitching staff all spring and into the early summer, but against TCU on Friday night, it was hard to tell.
The Horned Frogs got to Gators’ starter Jackson Kowar for a pair of two-run inning runs and then blew the game open with four more runs in the sixth to pull away for a 9-2 victory in the semifinal round of the College World Series.
TCU’s win forces a decisive second game on Saturday to determine who moves on to the National Championship Series next week. The Frogs and Florida play at 8 p.m. at TD Ameritrade Park after LSU and Oregon State collide in another winner-take-all semifinal game at 3 p.m.
Led by freshman right-hander, it was the TCU bullpen that stole the show with 5.1 shutout innings. King logged 3.2 after entering in the fourth inning to put a fire out as the Frogs’ retired 15 of the final 19 Florida hitters.
The Gators (49-19) managed only five singles and could never gain the upper hand Friday after Kowar’s night did a sudden about-face in the third inning.
Kowar struck out 11 in five innings and blazed through the first 2.2 innings, fanning seven of the first eight men he faced. Horned Frogs’ nine-hole batter Ryan Merrill nudged the floodgates open with a single to right field, the first of three consecutive two-out hits.
Austen Wade and Zach Humphreys followed with ringing doubles to drive in runs for a 2-0 TCU lead before Kowar logged his eighth strikeout vs. Evan Skoug to quell the uprising.
Trouble resurfaced in the fourth inning. Cam Warner led off with a walk and Elliott Barzilli hit a sharp grounder off of Kowar’s leg. While the Gators were recovering the ball, Warner scampered to third base.
Kowar struck out his 10th hitter for the second out, but Josh Watson blasted the first offering he got over center fielder Nick Horvath’s head for a two-run triple.
Between the Frogs’ two rallies, the Gators answered with a two-spot in the third but squandered a few chances to pull closer or even the score.
Mike Rivera got Florida within 2-1 when he lifted a one-out solo home run inside the left-field foul pole. TCU starter Mitchell Traver walked the next two batters to set up a potential huge inning. Dalton Guthrie added fuel to the fire with a double down the left-field line that plated Horvath to knot the score.
But Ryan Larson rounded third base and slipped and was caught in no-man’s land when Watson pegged a throw to Barzilli at third base for the second out. Traver got out of trouble with the score deadlocked 2-2 when JJ Schwarz popped out to right field.
An inning later, a two-out error cracked a window of opportunity open, and Travers walked Austin Langworthy to finish his night. King entered and walked Rivera to load the bases before zipping three strikes past Horvath – the last one looking – to leave the Gators frustrated.
Whatever glimmer of hope remained evaporated in the TCU sixth, with most of the damage delivered on one swing of Evan Skoug’s bat with walks fueling the Frogs’ cause.
Garrett Milchin took over for Kowar on the mound to begin the frame and sandwiched walks around Watson’s one-out single to again fill the bases. With Wade at the plate, Milchin bounced the ball to the plate and reacted in pain, prompting UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan to remove him and summon Frank Rubio.
Down 2-and-0 when he entered, Rubio got two strikes and induced a chopper third base but it yielded a run when the Gators couldn’t turn a double play. Rubio walked Zach Humphreys to re-load the bases, and Skoug unloaded them when he pumped a double to right-center field to cap a five-run inning and pad the TCU advantage to 8-2.