NCAA Tournament preview: Gator baseball earns #15 overall seed, matched up with blue bloods

Gator baseball
Photo credit: Michael Wade, Florida Gators Baseball

The 2021 Gator baseball team was hyped up to be one of the best of all time. That didn’t happen: the regular season was a bit of a letdown to say the least. But the Gator baseball team did manage to sneak into the top 16 in the Committee’s eyes, and earn the right to host a Regional.

Florida earned the #15 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, and will begin its tournament run against in-state foe South Florida, the Regional #4 seed. That game will start at noon and air on the SEC Network. Also in the Regional are the South Alabama Jaguars as the Regional #3 seed, and because no Regional can be complete without drama, the Miami Hurricanes will make a return trip to Gainesville as the Regional #2 seed.

Miami, of course, beat Florida two out of three times to inaugurate the new season, and the new Florida Ballpark. That was the first clue that this year’s Gator baseball team wasn’t going to live up to its lofty expectations. The Gators did show signs of promise throughout the year, most notably by taking two out of three from fellow top 16 teams Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, but sweeps at the hands of South Carolina and Arkansas on the road derailed any chances the Gators may have had to grab a top eight seed, which would have granted them the right to host a Super Regional if they were to win their Regional.

Instead, Florida will have to go on the road for the Super Regional, which if chalk holds will be hosted by the Texas Longhorns in Austin. Texas earned the #2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament by virtue of winning the Big 12. If the Gators were to win their Regional and Texas were to get eliminated in its own Regional, Florida would host the Super Regional. The Longhorns’ Regional also includes Arizona State, Fairfield and Southern.

Gator baseball could pen new chapters of rich histories with blue bloods

Florida has accumulated a good amount of history against both Miami and Texas in the NCAA Baseball Tournament this century, two of the most dominant baseball programs in the sport’s history (four and six national championships, respectively), and should the higher seeds win, they’ll get to write additional chapters in those storied series.

The Gators were bounced by Miami in the 2004 Super Regionals in Coral Gables, but since then, this postseason rivalry has been owned by Florida. In fact, the Gators haven’t even lost a postseason game to the Canes since.

First came a pair of annihilations in the 2009 Gainesville Regional by scores of 8-2 and 16-5. In 2010, the Hurricanes and Gators were paired in a Super Regional in Gainesville; Florida won the first one 7-2 before Miami gave Game 2 away with a comedy of errors to send Florida back to the World Series. The following year, it was back to the Gainesville Regional stage for the Canes, who once again got bounced by Florida, this time by scores of 5-4 and 11-4.

The postseason rivalry took a bit of a hiatus after that, but then the two teams renewed their blood feud on the biggest stage of all: Omaha, in the 2015 College World Series. Florida picked up its dominance of Miami right where it left off- by butchering the Canes, first by a 15-3 score in the opening game, and then again by a 10-2 count in the 1-1 CWS elimination game.

The postseason history with Texas has been much more even.

The Longhorns got the biggest laugh of all by sweeping Florida two games to none in the 2005 College World Series Championship Series for their sixth (and most recent) national championship. Florida, though, has gotten some small measures of payback since: the Gators relegated the Horns to the loser’s bracket of the 2011 CWS with an 8-4 victory in the opening game before Vanderbilt knocked them out, and in 2018, Florida ended Texas’s season in Omaha with a 6-1 victory in a CWS elimination game.

Regional preview

So that’s the history. Let’s talk present.

Here comes the standard warning of “any team can beat any other team on any given day” for Florida’s tourney-opening game against USF. Florida has actually lost stray games to Jacksonville and FAU this year and nearly lost another one to Samford, so they should be more wary of this than most. And Gator fans don’t have to look too far back in history to remember a time where they got swept out of their own Regional (2014).

But of the teams in Gainesville for next weekend’s Regional, #4 seed USF is the least frightening. And South Alabama, a team that features freshman pitching sensation Jeremy Lee but little consistency on offense, and a team that’s lost series to Appalachian State, Texas State, Little Rock, Georgia Southern, Middle Tennessee State and Southeast Missouri State, isn’t a great deal more threatening.

It certainly seems like this Regional will be decided between Florida and Miami, one way or another. So that’s the team I’m focusing on here.

If you’re a Gator baseball fan, you’re familiar with the names by now. Alex Toral. Christian and Adrian Del Castillo. Jordan Lala. Raymond Gil. Tony Jenkins. Etc. You know that the Canes and Gators recruit from the exact same pools of talent, and in fact battle each other for the majority of players on their respective rosters. So you know that this series is always evenly matched from a talent standpoint.

But Florida and Miami share another thing in common: both make for very interesting case studies of the roller coaster baseball season.

Sweeps by FSU (in March) and Pittsburgh (in April) doomed the Hurricanes’ chances to host a Regional, while Florida lost its chance to host a Super Regional when the Gators got swept by South Carolina and Arkansas. The Canes don’t have the statement-and-exclamation-point series wins that Florida has over Mississippi and Vanderbilt, but Miami does have series wins over NCAA Tournament teams Duke, NC State, Georgia Tech, Virginia and of course, Florida.

Both Florida and Miami can beat any other team in the country when the barrels of their bats are meeting baseballs and they get good pitching performances. And the inverse is also true: both Florida and Miami are liable to fall flat with fielding errors, unpredictable lack of control from their pitchers, inability to come up with clutch hits, and just plain bad at-bats. All those things came together to cost Florida against South Carolina, and Miami against Pitt and FSU.

The numbers do favor Florida, albeit slightly. While the Gator baseball bats are hot and cold, resulting in a .280 team batting average on the year, Miami’s bats have just been cold recently. That’s dropped the Canes’ team batting average to a hair over .266 on the year, which is 151st out of 286 Division I baseball teams. Likewise, the Gators’ team ERA is decent, but not great: it’s 4.17, which is 51st in D-I, and the Canes’ team ERA is a few notches below, sitting at 4.33, which is 67th. As for defense? Florida is notably not great there, with a .969 fielding percentage on the year, but Miami isn’t much better, with a .973 fielding percentage.

So while Florida shouldn’t have trouble with USF in the opener on Friday, advancing out of this Regional is no sure thing. Miami is going to come ready to play- and it should make for an interesting weekend.

The Gator baseball Regional game plan

There’s zero question that Tommy Mace and Hunter Barco are Florida’s top two options on the mound. The question is where Kevin O’Sullivan wants to use one of those top two guys against USF, and not have him available for the second Miami game since Florida will have to beat them twice.

Either way, the Gators will have to prepare three starting pitchers at a minimum. The third of these is going to probably be Franco Aleman; should a fourth game be needed, it’ll probably be a tag team effort between Christian Scott, Trey Van Der Weide, Brandon Sproat and Jack Leftwich if Leftwich hasn’t thrown too many pitches yet on the weekend.

Offensively, Florida’s lineup is pretty much set. Though Sully may tinker with a spot or two, it’ll be Jacob Young, Nathan Hickey and Jud Fabian at the top, and some combination of Kirby McMullen, Kris Armstrong, Kendrick Calilao, Mac Guscette and Sterlin Thompson in the middle-lower spots. Josh Rivera is a mainstay at shortstop, so while his bat isn’t exactly on fire, he’ll be somewhere at the bottom of the lineup. And Cory Acton may not start, but he’s sure to get some action in some fashion or another in this Regional.

Looking ahead?

I’ve been burned before by previewing rounds in the NCAA Tournament that Florida doesn’t make it to, so I’m not going to do that here. If Florida does make it to the Super Regionals, a separate preview will come then.

But I do think that this weekend presents the Gator baseball team with the opponent it deserves to kick off its NCAA Tournament with (OK, they’d play them in the second game, but still). It’s destiny, really, that Florida face Miami again after the Canes opened the new Florida Ballpark with a series win. And with all the history between these two schools in the postseason, regardless of whether they met their preseason expectations or not, it’s only right that Florida’s most hyped up team ever faces Miami for a chance to win its Regional.