TAMPA — No pitcher enjoys the long walk from the mound to the dugout after being asked to hand over the ball. Someone is summoned from the bullpen. In the moment, it’s little relief.
But after allowing a leadoff single to start the sixth inning Monday in an NCAA regional final against Texas Tech, Ryan Slater had five scoreless innings for Florida that were something to savor, and he was greeted with a standing ovation befitting a savior.
Two days earlier, the former East Lake High star had taken his first loss of the season, allowing a winning two-run homer in the eighth to the Red Raiders for a defeat that sent the Gators to an elimination game.
But his bounce-back performance Monday helped the Gators to a 6-0 win and moved them into a super regional — today against South Carolina — for the first time since 2018.
“To see him bounce back like that was definitely exciting,” said Slater’s dad, Bobby.
“You didn’t know the goal was for him to throw four or five innings and make it a bullpen effort. He was very efficient, but everything a young man goes through after some failure, and then for him to do what he did … the game moves on and you don’t talk about it until after the game.
“But he comes out in the sixth and he gave out a leadoff single and they decided to make the move. I think one of the coolest things was the crowd there gave him a standing ovation.”
Bobby Slater is no stranger to witnessing great performances. He is the Bucs’ trainer, with a Super Bowl 55 championship ring.
He also knows something about athletes battling back from injury.
Ryan, a right-hander, suffered a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow before his career began at Florida.
“Then he got to Florida and started ramping things up and reinjured the ligament,” Bobby said.
“Based on the way he throws with his arm action, the best thing for him was to go ahead and get Tommy John surgery.”
The procedure forced Ryan to redshirt the 2021 season. Bobby, who played outfield at Florida Southern, was not only a shoulder to lean on, he had enough arm to play catch with his son during the long rehabilitation.
“When this initially happened, I was given the advice just to be dad,” Bobby said. “That lasted for maybe a month. I’m keeping progress, keeping tabs, and then it’s like, ‘OK, I’m involved now.’
“It was fun. Part of the whole process was I found out I could still throw, but then I got to a certain point where my age had caught up to me. I played outfield in college and stuff like that. I got to the point where (Ryan was) standing flat-footed and not even crow hopping and throwing to me, and I’m crow hopping just to throw a one-hopper back to him.”
Last season, his first since pitching competitively at East Lake, Ryan began the season as the Gators’ closer.
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“He took his lumps,” Bobby said. “People fail to remember that a kid doesn’t pitch for a while and then he gets Tommy John. You look at all these guys who are getting the surgery today, sometimes they miss almost a season and a half. When (Ryan) got hurt in that fall, he missed 2021 but was ready to go in the 2022 season.
“The last game he pitched was a high school game, and now all of a sudden you’re pitching in the (SEC). Just like anybody else, as a pitcher, you’ve got to execute, and there’s going to be good days and bad days.”
Ryan finished that first season with a 6-4 record, six saves and a 5.34 ERA. He struck out 48 batters and allowed 53 hits while throwing 57⅓ innings, fourth most on the staff.
Monday’s start was only his third of the season for Florida. He was dominant from the start, allowing only three hits and two walks for his team-high 10th win. His ERA fell to 3.51.
Bobby was at Monday’s game in Gainesville, though the Bucs are wrapping up organized team activities. He missed the Bucs’ first three workouts so he could attend the SEC tournament in Alabama.
The Bucs under general manager Jason Licht, former coach Bruce Arians and current coach Todd Bowles always have been adamant about coaches, front-office and other employees not missing their kids’ events.
“I’ll never forget one day, Ryan was actually still in high school and I had walked down to the dining hall and (Arians) saw me down there eating and he saw me walking down the hallway and gave it the old, ‘Yeah, what the hell are you doing here?’ Essentially, he ran me out of the building.”
During Ryan Slater’s walk off the mound Monday, his dad couldn’t help but think of all the steps that led to his journey at Florida.
“At the end of the day, he competes,” Bobby said. “What people will see is a calm, cool kid who’s collected and doesn’t show a whole lot of emotion but has learned to show emotion when necessary but is still one of the most competitive young men. I mean, the fire is there. It’s fun to watch.
“They still have a long way to go, but the standing ovation, and then seeing little kids come to him and grown men at the ballpark asking him, ‘Can you sign my ball or my hat?’ That’s pretty cool to see.”
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @NFLSTROUD.