(Photo credit: Florida Gator baseball team)
The Gator baseball team started each of the past two seasons on a down note, and ended them each on an even bigger down note.
This year, Florida has at least taken care of the former.
Florida opened the 2023 season by blowing out Charleston Southern three straight times to begin the year 3-0. The first two blowouts were so lopsided that they even triggered a new mercy rule, meaning that when the Gators led by double digits after Charleston Southern was retired in the seventh inning, those 10+ run leads instantly became the final scores. Following 13-3 and 16-2 mercy rule wins to start the series, Florida secured the sweep on Sunday with a workmanlike 8-0 victory.
The series win is Florida’s first season-opening series win since 2020, when they swept Marshall. Florida then lost its first series in 2021 to Miami, as well as its first series of 2022 to Liberty- both times in Gainesville. The Gators would bookend those seasons by getting knocked out of their own Regional: first by South Alabama in 2021, then by Oklahoma in 2022.
No, you can’t draw conclusions about this year’s Gator baseball team from three games against a Big South team. But there are good signs to take away.
Charleston Southern actually scored first in each of the first two games, but Florida responded well on both sides of the game. In both games, Florida turned a 1-0 deficit into a 4-1 lead after three innings, and then went to work further distancing themselves from the Buccaneers.
Brandon Sproat pitched 5.2 innings of no-hit baseball on Friday night, although he was a little wild. He walked three batters, hit two more, and uncorked two additional wild pitches. That resulted in three Buccaneer runs without a single hit. Fisher Jameson then came in and finished the game. On the other side, newcomer Tyler Shelnut joined veterans Josh Rivera, BT Riopelle, Ty Evans, and Wyatt Langford with multi-hit nights Florida rolled to a 13-3 win.
Saturday’s game was even less stressful. Southern Miss transfer Hursten Waldrep did nothing to dissuade anybody that he should be Florida’s number two starter, going five innings and giving up two runs on four hits before turning it over to Cade Fisher and Yoel Tejada. Meanwhile, true freshman Cade Kurland exploded onto the scene with a walk, a single and a double in four trips to the plate; Riopelle and Evans again enjoyed multi-hit games as Florida smacked eleven hits and watched Charleston Southern commit four errors in a 16-2 victory.
By comparison, Sunday was a nail biter. Jac Caglianone- who broke onto the scene as a designated hitter last year while his pitching arm recovered from Tommy John surgery- dazzled in his pitching debut after recording a hit on Friday and Saturday. He gave up just two hits and a walk in 6.2 innings of shutout ball before Blake Purnell and Brandon Neely finished the game. Florida only led 3-0 in the seventh after Evans drove in two with a double down the line and newcomer Luke Heyman tripled in a third run off the wall in deep center, but then the Gator baseball lineup exploded for five more runs in the seventh to put the game out of reach and clinch the sweep.
Beyond just the sheer stats, the Gators looked good, too. Florida’s lineup strung together a lot of great at-bats, working pitch counts and teeing off on mistake pitches. A good number of outs came on fly balls or lines drives that were caught within a few feet of the warning track. Florida also did not commit any major base running blunders, something that hurt them the last two years.
The Gators’ defense was equally stellar. Florida did not commit a single error throughout the course of the weekend. Instead, the defense shined with a variety of dazzling plays, perhaps most impressively Colby Halter’s pickup of a bunt and perfect throw to beat the runner in the finale on Sunday.
And the pitching staff looks to be the deepest it’s been since a string of four straight Omaha runs in 2015-18. We already knew what Sproat could do. He was a third-round MLB Draft pick last year and turned down millions to come back to Florida for one more year (yes, you can do that in baseball). Now, Waldrep has shown why he was the ace of a USM team that reached the Super Regionals last year and ditto that for Caglianone’s high school All-American honor. For depth, Brandon Neely, Blake Purnell, and Fisher Jameson all boast valuable NCAA Tournament experience at Florida, and looked as strong as ever in relief roles this weekend- and Florida hasn’t even used Carsten Finnvold yet, the hero of the 2-0-vs-2-1 Regional final against Oklahoma last year after throwing a complete game victory. He figures to be a midweek guy.
To reiterate, it’s way, way, way too early to even begin to think about drawing conclusions about this Gator baseball team. Nobody who follows the sport would encourage that. All I’m saying is that the way-way-way-too-early returns on this team are very good.
And that’s more than we could say about the last two Gator baseball teams.