Is this the year for the Florida Gators baseball team? (Photo credit: Florida Athletics)
The 60+ game length of the college baseball season means it’s virtually impossible for any team to dominate the totality of its competition from start to finish. It’s practically unheard of for a team to not go through a rough stretch at some point in the more than four months that the season stretches on. And the Florida Gators- who have spent the entire season ranked in the top 10- are no exception.
Now, obviously, talking about the Gators’ “struggles” over the past few weeks is relative. The word “struggle” is not to be taken in the same context with this Florida Gators baseball team as, say, the struggles of the Florida State Seminoles baseball team. Somehow, the Noles started the season 11-3 before the train came off the tracks and barreled full force into a tree trunk. FSU is now smack-dab in the middle of a historically elongated (and hilarious) stretch of ineptitude that’s seen them lose 27 of their last 35 games- and three of their eight wins in that stretch came in one weekend against Mercer. It’s all about perspective.
(And because I simply like kicking rivals while they’re down, here’s a fun bit of context that actually makes that statistic look even worse: exactly one-third of FSU’s 27 losses in the last 35 games have come by eight runs or more.)
But anyway, enough about teams that have already officially been eliminated from the NCAA Tournament. The Florida Gators baseball team long ago locked up its tournament berth, but heading into the Vandy series this weekend, the Gators seemed to have come back down to earth in late April after a tremendous start. A sweep at the hands of South Carolina and a series loss to a respectable, but by no means excellent, Texas A&M team in the span of three weekends raised some questions about this team.
Off nights will happen for any offensive juggernaut, which, for example, is why nobody was really concerned about a lone two-run offensive output in the middle game of the series against a so-so Georgia team. But in the six games on their road trips to South Carolina and Texas A&M, Florida could only manage a total of 20 runs. That led to some concerns about the Gators’ ability to produce offense against above-average pitching staff.
Then there was the issue of Hursten Waldrep- and more broadly, the Florida pitching staff as a whole.
The NCAA notified Florida’s staff after the South Carolina series that Hursten Waldrep’s pitching motion was, according to the letter of the law, illegal because of a brief hitch in his motion. Waldrep’s delivery had included the quick pause throughout the course of not just each of his first ten starts at Florida- four of which were attended by at least one NCAA official, and a fifth of which was on national television- but throughout his career at Southern Miss. With Waldrep as the ace of the staff, Southern Miss commanded enough attention to host both a Regional and a Super Regional each game of which also had NCAA officials in the stands. At no point did any of those NCAA representatives at any of those games think to say say a word about Waldrep’s pitching motion.
Forced to adjust his motion on the fly after so much muscle memory had been built up, Waldrep struggled mightily with his command in each of his next two starts. In a combined 7.2 innings of work against South Carolina and Texas A&M, he walked ten batters and gave up eight earned runs. That triggered some worries that Waldrep- while by no means at fault for this after having no reason to believe anything was illegal for the better part of three full seasons- had lost his effectiveness and wouldn’t be able to regain his top form with the change.
If Florida’s bullpen was lights-out, this would have been annoying, but not especially damaging. That, though, hasn’t been the case this year- particularly not early on, as Florida blew three separate leads of 5+ runs in the sixth inning or later and lost those games. While the Gators’ bullpen has been better recently, it certainly hasn’t been great with the exception of closer Brandon Neely.
This theory, of course, was brightly illuminated by another classic instance of selective use of power- when umpire Brian deBrauwere decided to eject Neely for simply pumping his fist and shouting, “let’s go!” following a critical eighth-inning strikeout against Georgia. The four-game auto-suspension that came with it barred him from eligibility the following weekend against South Carolina. Sure enough, the Gator bullpen melted down not once but twice without its closer and got swept.
Even Jac Caglianone hasn’t been great on the mound this year. He’s already broken the Florida single-season home run record, but has been shaky on the mound. Only once in his previous seven starts could he get through the fourth inning, and he didn’t even make it out of the first inning against Texas A&M. In other words, the concerns were certainly there about his ability to be a reliable third starting pitcher for Florida.
So, the long and short of all of that is: this Gator team, while by any objective measure elite, isn’t perfect. It has questions.
Those questions were answered against a top-five Vanderbilt team. Each and every one of them. And with a series sweep of 10-0 (mercy rule- game called after seven innings), 6-2, and 6-2 again, the Gators look as dangerous as any team in college baseball.
Vanderbilt, as a team, came into the weekend series with one of the ten best team ERAs in college baseball at 4.07. The Gators’ offense sledgehammered that pitching staff for 22 runs in 23 innings of work. That answers the “can the Gators hit elite pitching?” question.
Hursten Waldrep only got one inning of work before a rain delay ended his night. Even still, he suddenly looked a lot more comfortable with his mechanics in that one inning than he had at any point in his previous two starts- and sent the Dores down 1-2-3 in that inning. That (somewhat) answers the “can Waldrep find a new groove?” question.
After Cade Fisher took the ball from Brandon Sproat on Friday and finished out the game, the bullpen had to pitch nearly the entire game on Saturday thanks to the rain delay- and was sublime, holding Vandy to just two runs. For good measure, Neely gave Florida an extended effort to close out the sweep. That answers the “can this bullpen be good enough to not repeatedly lose big games?” question.
And last but certainly not least, Jac Caglianone was the best we’ve ever seen on the mound against the Dores. The command he had of his changeup made Vanderbilt’s hitters look silly all day, allowing just one hit and one walk in 6.1 innings. That answers the “can Cags be that dependable third starter?” question.
Now tack all of those answers on to the list of things the Florida Gators baseball team does well.
For starters, the power. The Florida offense is fourth in the nation with 106 homers and sixth with a .565% slugging percentage. Sure, more than a quarter of those homers (27) have come off the bat of Caglianone, but it’s not like he’s the Gators’ only source of power. Cade Kurland has also contributed to that tally with 15 homers, and Wyatt Langford and Josh Rivera have blasts 14 round-trippers each. And having just recently hit his tenth homer of the year, Michael Robertson gives Florida’s lineup a fifth member of the 10+ home run club this year.
But the bats on this Florida Gators baseball team can do more than simply hit for power. They can hit, period. Florida’s offense ranks in the top 40 of the 295-team Division I in several other offensive categories, such as batting average (29th), hits (38), on-base percentage (tied for 40th) and runs (9th). And keep in mind that the only reason Florida is that low in those categories is because teams like VMI, Texas Southern, Jackson State, New Mexico, and Northern Kentucky are getting their stats in against far inferior pitching than the Gators face in the SEC.
Complementing that offense is a 1-2 punch of pitchers that- if the one inning is not a mirage, and Waldrep truly does look comfortable with the new mechanics moving forward- is as solid as almost any other in the country. Brandon Sproat has had far more good outings than bad, and Waldrep’s velocity and breaking ball bite are consistently lethal. And with Cags turning in a gem of a performance on the mound, Florida now has all three starting pitchers with an ERA of under 5- which is pretty uncommon in college baseball, and an outright rarity in the SEC.
And of course, then there’s Brandon Neely, Florida’s closer. He doesn’t get a ton of save opportunities because Florida’s offense often blows its opponents out of games before he can take the mound, but he’s usually lights-out just the same. In only four of his 23 appearances has he given up two or more hits- and when reading that stat, keep in mind that he’s often asked to get six, and sometimes even seven or more, outs. He did have the one horrible showing against Georgia, where it all unraveled for him and he allowed seven runs on six hits with just one out in between, but consider this: even with that mortifying blip on his resume, his ERA for the year is 3.75. If you remove the one outlier performance of his 23 appearances, his ERA for the year would be exactly 2.00. In college baseball, that’s tremendous.
So there we stand. The Florida Gators baseball team is, as always, loaded with talent, but we were able to say that the last two years, too, and those teams were stunned out of their own Regional.
This year, they’re putting together enough signs that that talent can deliver results that it’s become worth believing in them as a national title team.