2022 Gator baseball eulogy: same issues that plagued Florida all year long cost them their season

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Photo credit: Florida Gators

It’s something of poetic justice when a sports team sees its season end in the same fashion that many individual games themselves ended. For better or worse, it’s just fitting to see a season conclude in a certain way, as a result of certain staples of that team. And for the 2022 Gator baseball team, the disappointing ending couldn’t possibly have been more representative of its struggles throughout the season.

Thus, for a second straight year, a Gator baseball season came to a finish with a loss in the team’s own backyard in the double-elimination NCAA Regionals. This time it was Oklahoma doing the honors, 5-4.

The backdrop was quite unique.¬†After beating Central Michigan in the 2022 Gainesville Regional opener, Florida then lost to Oklahoma to drop down to the loser’s bracket. The Gators somehow avoided a complete meltdown in a rematch with CMU, blowing a 5-0 5th inning lead and leaving eight runners stranded on base before recovering to win 6-5.

That ugly win over the Chippewas set up a Regional final against Oklahoma, with Florida needing to beat the Sooners twice. And it also served as an excellent piece of foreshadowing for how that Regional final was going to play out.

Florida won the first of those two games thanks to heroics from pitcher Carsten Finnvold, who had not even been on the travel roster for the Gators for much of the year. Yet Finnvold stymied the Sooners with a complete game, five-hit victory. Thus, the decisive final game was set up on Monday, with both teams sporting one loss and also one win away from the Super Regionals.

The effort was there in that winner-take-all game Monday afternoon. Jud Fabian went back to the wall to rob a home run and dove facefirst to take another run off the board by snaring a sinking line drive with a runner on third. Wyatt Langford also orchestrated a facefirst dive trying to steal second base; he got the bag, but lost two teeth. And on just one day of rest, Brandon Neely- who threw 50 pitches on Saturday against the Sooners- came back out and threw 6 and 2/3 innings of brilliant baseball, allowing just one home run to decorate the scoreboard for Oklahoma.

But then the rain came down, causing a delay of approximately five hours and thirty-four minutes with Florida up 2-1 with two outs in Oklahoma’s top of the seventh. (Yes, 5:34.) That was enough time for players to take a slumber- or in Langford’s case, get his teeth fixed at the dentist’s office– and by the time the game resumed, the tenor had completely changed.

Ryan Slater came on to get the final out of the seventh, and Florida did load the bases in the bottom of the seventh, but all they could do with that golden opportunity was produce a sacrifice fly to make it 3-1. Moments later, Oklahoma finally made Florida pay for its inactive bats. A John Spikerman double and a Peyton Graham homer tied the game in the eighth for the Sooners.

That was when Kevin O’Sullivan started making mistakes.

At that point, it became pretty obvious to most fans watching what had to be done- recognize that Slater didn’t have it, and go find someone else in the bullpen to handle the rest of the eighth. (My personal option without being in those meeting rooms would have been to turn the ball over to Nic Ficarotta, but I could have understood going with Blake Purnell, Fisher Jameson, Garrett Milchin, or even Brandon Sproat, who was on two days’ rest after throwing over 100 pitches on Friday.) Kevin O’Sullivan disagreed, and the next two Sooners promptly re-filled the bases with a walk and a single.

Still, Slater was left in by Kevin O’Sullivan- a theme that has played out semi-regularly over the past two seasons, starting all the way back in the first series of 2021 when Sully left a wild Franco Aleman to implode against Miami- and when a sacrifice bunt pushed them both up 90 feet, Sully made another blunder.

With runners at second and third and one out late in a tie game, the proper move is to bring the infield in. This way, a ground ball to an infielder can be scooped up and thrown home. With no force play on, the catcher, Mac Guscette, would have to take the extra step of applying a tag onto the runner, but just because an extra step to the process may make the maneuver slightly more difficult doesn’t make it not the correct play. But Sully neglected to play the middle infielders in, and when a routine ground ball was hit to Josh Rivera, he had no choice but to throw to first, allowing the go-ahead run to score.

And that run proved costly. Oklahoma tacked on a fifth run on an ensuing RBI single to make it 5-3, and only then did Sully realize he had to change pitchers- but too late. Wyatt Langford would reduce that deficit to 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth with a solo home run, thus tying Matt LaPorta for the most home runs in a single season at Florida with 26, but the Gators were unable to add that last run they really needed, and 5-4 turned into the final score.

There are several different specific directions in which you could logically point the finger of blame, if you’re into that. You can point it at Sully for his back-to-back coaching blunders at the end. You can point to Ryan Slater, as he just couldn’t get the job done and was the official losing pitcher. And you can blame the weather for taking Neely out of his groove.

But the reality is that Florida’s season is done for the same reason it was off to such a rocky start to begin with: the team just isn’t as good as it was during the golden years of the 2010s. Plain and simple. Oh, the talent is there, and I’m sure the effort is too. But the production in crunch time wasn’t. Because this year’s iteration of Gator baseball made bad habits of doing two things those past teams would never do.

One of those habits was that this Gator baseball team just couldn’t hit in clutch situations. Florida finishes the 2022 season with a team batting average of .274, which isn’t great, but understandable given the gauntlet of an SEC schedule plus three games against FSU and Miami. And that’s actually higher than Florida’s team batting average in 2017, the year the Gators won the national title. But that 2017 team, as did most of the teams in that decade, almost always came through with hits in big situations (and plus, that team had an elite pitching staff from top to bottom).

By contrast, Florida left eight men on base in their season-ending loss to Oklahoma. If that sounds familiar, it might be because Florida also left ten men on base in their regular-season finale loss to South Carolina, nine in the middle-game loss to Missouri, eight in the series finale loss to Kentucky, ten in the series finale loss to Tennessee, nine and seven in two losses to Vanderbilt, ten and six in the first two losses to Georgia, ten in the series finale loss to LSU… and so on. Time and again, in critical situations, Florida’s lineup simply could not get the job done at the plate.

Then there was the fact that Florida’s relief pitching has been similarly unreliable in clutch situations. Florida’s overall pitching numbers weren’t bad, although a lot of them were helped by Hunter Barco’s efforts before he went down. But again, the raw numbers don’t account for the lack of trustworthiness by the bullpen. Florida’s bullpen blew multi-run leads in the sixth inning or later in losses against Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Georgia twice, Alabama, nearly blew a giant one against Seton Hall, and Liberty.

In a season comprised of 66 games, many of which are decided before the final innings, that- to say the absolute least- is really, really bad. And unfortunately, the Gators’ bullpen did it once more to end the season, blowing a 3-1 lead in the eighth inning against Oklahoma to completely ruin a fantastic start by Brandon Neely.

So the 2022 Gator baseball season ultimately ended the way it was bound to end eventually. Florida’s lack of situational hitting and relief pitching was going to cost the Gators their season one way or another, and it just so happened to do so in Gainesville after a five and a half hour weather delay. The end result was never a question, because we had seen it play out too many times to rationally believe otherwise; the question was where and when, not if.

Of course, it’s sad to see a Gator baseball season come to an end sooner than expected (no pun intended, I swear.) When a sports season reaches its conclusion, and that conclusion comes in the form of anything other than a championship, the natural inclination for fans is to feel sadness. And indeed, there is sadness when thinking about how this 2022 squad- which was loaded with talent- saw its season end.

But with the sadness, and that realization that the season was bound to end one way or another due to ineffective relief pitching and a lack of situational hitting, can come one small smidge of solace with the knowledge that for all its shortcomings, this team kept us entertained every step of the way.

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