Fortunately, the Red and Black were not called upon to contend with the toughest Paladin.
The three-game series started with a bang, as the lone Gator hit in the top of the first frame was a home run by Matt LaPorta, who put one out to center field with two outs away. After Jonathan Wyatt popped up and Ryan Peisel grounded out to begin the home half of the inning, Gordon Beckham answered with a two-out solo shot of his own to tie the game at one run apiece.
The Georgia shortstop's home run was not the only offense the Diamond Dogs had to offer, however, as Matt Olson followed with a base hit and Rich Poythress went yard to plate two more runs before Luke Stewart grounded out to end the inning with the home team holding a 3-1 lead.
In an attempt to battle back from the deficit in the top of the second stanza, Cody Neer led off with a double to left field, but the next three Florida batters all registered outs to strand the Gator catcher in scoring position. The Red and Black next undertook to build on their lead, but they, too, failed to make the most of their opportunities, as a leadoff walk by Joey Lewis and a subsequent single by Matt Cerione went for naught when three successive Bulldogs recorded outs to end the inning.
Nathan Moreau did not tarry with the Gators in the third inning, coaxing a strikeout from Clayton Pisani, a flyout from Jon Townsend, and a popup from Cole Figueroa to retire the side in sequence. This brought the host squad back up to bat and, while Poythress put himself in scoring position with a two-out double, Stewart flied out in the next at-bat to keep the score unchanged.
The Orange and Blue went three up and three down in the top of the ensuing inning. With four frames under his belt, Moreau had faced 14 batters, striking out three and walking none while surrendering just two hits and one earned run. The first two Classic City Canines to step into the batter's box in the bottom of the canto recorded outs, but Mike Freeman collected the sixth Georgia hit of the evening on a single. Wyatt grounded out to end the inning, at which point the Gators' Bryan Augenstein had faced 19 batters, tallied one strikeout, given up one base on balls, and surrendered three earned runs.
Bryan Augenstein pitched just over seven innings and got the win. Boon Schoenstein helped wreck the 1962 Faber College homecoming parade and got the girl. I was a good deal happier for the latter than for the former.
Moreau again retired the side in order in the top of the fifth stanza, completing his third straight inning without giving up a hit and facing his twelfth consecutive batter without allowing a baserunner. Peisel led off the second half of the contest with a strikeout, but Beckham tried to get something going by drawing a walk and stealing second.
Olson capitalized on this opportunity by punching the base hit into center field that scored the Georgia shortstop and gave the Red and Black a three-run advantage. Poythress popped up in the next at-bat, then Stewart grounded out to end the home half of the frame.
In the sixth stanza, the wheels began to come off for the Diamond Dogs. Pisani led off the top of the inning with a base hit and Townsend sacrificed him over to second. A Figueroa single scored the Florida second baseman and the Gator shortstop took second on the throw and third on a wild pitch. LaPorta's subsequent home run tied the game.
Austin Pride popped up to record the second out of the inning, but back-to-back doubles by Neer and Jonathan Pigott plated the go-ahead run before a Jake Hicks home run gave the Gators a 7-4 advantage. Matt den Dekker lined out to conclude the Orange and Blue's six-run outburst.
The Red and Black went in order in the bottom of the frame, allowing the Gators almost immediately to go back on the offensive. Adam McDaniel came on in relief of Moreau, who had been touched up for eight hits and seven earned runs in six innings' worth of work. The second Georgia pitcher of the night proceeded to surrender bases on balls to Pisani and Townsend before convincing Figueroa to chase strike three.
Florida third baseman Jon Townsend went without a hit in three at-bats, but he does run a heck of a detective agency!
After a wild pitch allowed both Gator baserunners to advance, LaPorta was intentionally walked and Ryan Woolley was brought on to pitch. The Red and Black reliever sneaked a third strike by Chris Petrie before getting the requisite third out on a popup from Neer.
The Classic City Canines failed to produce a baserunner in the bottom of the seventh stanza, so back to the mound went Woolley, who walked Pigott before the Florida right fielder was caught stealing. A pair of popups prevented additional scoring threats by the visiting team.
Olson led off the home half of the eighth inning by striking out, but three straight singles by Poythress, Stewart, and Lewis brought home a run and chased Augenstein from the mound. The Gator hurler had faced 34 batters and surrendered 10 hits, but he left the game with the lead despite having allowed five earned runs.
David Hurst came on to face Matt Robbins with the Georgia pinch hitter representing the go-ahead run. Hurst did his duty, inducing Robbins to ground into the double play that ended the threat and sent the Orange and Blue back up to bat. Woolley returned to the hill and, although an error by the pitcher allowed Figueroa to reach first base, the other three Florida batters obligingly produced outs.
The Diamond Dogs came up to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning having collected two more hits (10-8) but two fewer runs (7-5) than the opposition. Jake Crane led off by grounding out, but Wyatt singled in the next at-bat. Hurst was pulled in favor of Josh Edmondson, who persuaded Peisel to fly out to center field. Beckham kept the inning alive with a base hit that moved the Georgia center fielder into scoring position and brought Steven Porter on to pitch to Olson. The Red and Black right fielder fouled out to strand the seventh and eighth Bulldog baserunners of the night.
Contrary to what Dick Van Patten would have you believe, eight is, in fact, too much.
The loss dropped the Diamond Dogs to 10-15 overall and 3-4 in S.E.C. play. Despite tallying a dozen hits, the Classic City Canines once again failed to generate runs in adequate numbers, leaving the door open for a crucial defensive breakdown in a single inning to undo several previous stanzas' worth of patient production that should have given the home team a larger lead.
Although Gordon Beckham (two for four, two runs, one R.B.I.), Matt Olson (two for five, one run, one R.B.I.), and Rich Poythress (three for four, two runs, two R.B.I.) all had solid days at the plate, the two Diamond Dogs at the top of the lineup (Jonathan Wyatt and Ryan Peisel) and the Georgia designated hitter (Luke Stewart) combined to go two for 14 with no runs and no R.B.I.
The Red and Black's sweep of Auburn now appears like an aberration, if not a mirage. A young Georgia team persists in repeating the same mistakes. Even though the power outage at the plate is less pronounced a problem than it was earlier in the season, the top of the order remains unproductive and the would-be winning runs continue to be left on base at the end of critical innings.
In 25 games this season, Georgia has lost by one run four times, by two runs four times, by three runs once, and by four runs thrice. This team has been this close to putting it all together since the start of the season, but, infuriatingly, the Diamond Dogs are no nearer to being a ball club that can win close ones consistently than they were 24 games ago.
Perhaps the Red and Black can salvage the series by beating the Gators tomorrow and Sunday. Until and unless that happens, though, we are left with the harsh reality that this team will be a College World Series contender in 2008, but not before the Classic City Canines take their lumps in a brutal 2007.