It happened again.
The “it” in that opening sentence can be defined as two things: one, the 2016 Gator team’s penchant for losing the first game of a series, or stage, and two, the program’s penchant for flopping in the College World Series. Either way- or perhaps a combination of both?- what we saw last night was nothing new.
Florida struggled early, often and throughout offensively against Coastal Carolina starter Andrew Beckwith. Logan Shore pitched well, as did Dane Dunning, but neither was perfect, and so Jeremy Vasquez’s pinch hit RBI single turned out to be the totality of the Gators’ offensive production in a 2-1 loss that sent them to the brink of elimination. Coastal Carolina got their runs on a couple of strange plays, including a fly ball that Buddy Reed ran a long way for and then misjudged and another fly ball down the right field line that bounced on the outside tenth of the foul line, which was initially called foul before being overturned. And yes, that was it for CCU. Just two runs.
You’re supposed to win when you only give up two runs, and Florida’s failure to do so puts them in a familiar position- one loss away from their season being over. Of course, this group of Gators has staved off elimination several times before, most notably in the Super Regionals against FSU, so it’s not like it’s all over for Kevin O’Sullivan’s club.
But the “it happened again” line is more of an indication of the newest chapter of the Gators’ seemingly annual collapses in Omaha. Because let’s face it, this is becoming a habit.
Florida is now 14-20 all time in ten trips to the College World Series, and nine of those wins came in three appearances- 2005, 2011 and 2015. That means that in their other seven trips to Omaha, the Gators are a combined 5-14. The opponents have varied from no-name teams like Kent State and Coastal Carolina to powerhouses like Texas and South Carolina. The Gator teams that have reached Omaha have ranged from “pretty good” to “championship or bust” teams with five selections in the first two rounds of the MLB Draft. They just can’t friggin’ win games here, and showed why last night.
Florida’s offense picked this night, of all nights, not to make adjustments in later at bats. This was the night, of all nights, that Logan Shore lost a game he started. This was the night, of all nights, that the sure handed Buddy Reed dropped a fly ball that admittedly took some effort to get to, but that he should have caught nonetheless. Then again, this wasn’t the first such night.
Over the years, the Gators have lost games at the College World Series in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes it’s their pitching that fails them, sometimes it’s their fielding, and sometimes it’s their bats. And sometimes, they invent creative ways using elements of all three phases of the game to lose that you didn’t think was possible. The bottom line is, there’s just something about Omaha that affects the Gators in a nasty way that’s just not possible to explain. I’m paid to try to explain exactly how Florida wins or loses on any given day, and while I’m usually able to detail the how and why, on this occasion I’ve got nothing.
This Gator team faced Alex Lange of LSU and Anthony Kay of UConn, both of whom will someday be pitching in the bigs. And they did pretty well against both of them. But not against Beckwith. Not in the College World Series. By my count, Beckwith recorded 22 of the 27 outs via ground balls or strikeouts. Gator hitters didn’t just look lost against Beckwith, they looked like they had no interest in finding themselves, a frustrating thought for a team that, for the most part, has hit very well this postseason. Hitter after hitter would ground out weakly to one of the infielders if not strike out, and the fact that most of the outs came in the same two fashions does nothing to assuage the fear that this team will join 2012 as #1 overall seeded Gator teams to go two-and-Q.
Let’s flash back to six years ago, 2010.
Florida had just been bounced from the World Series at the hands of UCLA and FSU. This came one year after the Gators were stunned in their own Super Regional by Southern Miss. I was 16 years old then, so I wasn’t familiar with many of the Gators’ previous stumbles in Omaha. But losing to FSU in that elimination game wasn’t fun. Florida was down big, but launched a last ditch rally in the ninth… and then Mike Zunino lined into a game ending double play. I thought that that was a devastating loss.
I went to sleep that night fully convinced that Kevin O’Sullivan would someday guide Florida to its first national championship. That team, with young stars like Preston Tucker, Mike Zunino, Hudson Randall, Karsten Whitson and Nolan Fontana, had so much promise for the ensuing year. And the way O’Sullivan was able to recruit such a talented group of guys so fast served as promise for five years down the road.
I went to sleep last night still believing that it is possible, but for the first time since that night in June of 2010, I am no longer sure of it. This is the best team O’Sullivan has ever had at Florida, and if the Gators don’t come back from the losers’ bracket and do it this year, they can never be trusted to win it. That’s not to say they won’t, as Virginia was able to do it as a #3 seed in its own Regional last year, so I wouldn’t put it past a weaker 2017 team shocking everybody and winning it all, but you just can’t count on that happening.
Bottom line: if this team can’t get it done, it’s impossible to think that they ever will.
The thing is, the 2016 team has grown on me. I’ve come to know some of the players on a personal level, more than just their statistics and on field skills, and I really like this group of guys. I know it hurts them more than it hurts us as fans, but on the other hand, the players didn’t have the vested interests in previous Gator teams that collapsed in Omaha (JJ Schwarz, for example, grew up an FSU fan) that we as fans did.
So now the Gators are a group of cats down to their last life, a sinking ship with one last distress flare, and a team down to its final chance. They seem to enjoy playing with fire, but now they’ve boxed themselves in and set all four surrounding walls ablaze.
It’s going to take one final Houdini act, beginning tomorrow against Texas Tech, to get them back on the right track, and avoid becoming another chapter of the Gators’ Omaha Collapse Chronicles.