Florida’s real season begins now.
The field for this year’s Gainesville Regional is a little tougher than you’d expect for the #1 overall seed, to say the least. Connecticut, Georgia Tech and Bethune Cookman join Florida in the four team Regional, meaning that the Gators will be hosting the nation’s overall best four team field. UConn won the American conference with a 37-23 record, Georgia Tech is battle tested beyond belief in the loaded ACC (10 teams into the tournament), and even the #4 seed, Bethune Cookman, isn’t the worst of the tiny conference winners.
That’s the draw the Gators get after a stellar regular season that included the most wins in school history (44) and the nation’s best overall ERA (3.08). And before you dismiss it as, “it’s just the Regionals, you’re upset over nothing,” remember that Florida got swept out of its own Regional two years ago as the country’s #2 overall seed; their bats went ice cold in a pair of shocking losses to 4th seeded College of Charleston and 3rd seeded North Carolina.
Several players are back from that 2014 team, most notably Peter Alonso and Buddy Reed. They remember the feeling. And yes, the Gators swept through their Regional with ease en route to Omaha last year, but that disaster two years ago should serve as a reminder not to take anything for granted.
Especially with a field like this.
Let’s start with Georgia Tech. Some actually had the Yellow Jackets on the bubble because of the way they finished the regular season, but their 36-23 record is due in large part to facing Miami, Virginia, NC State and FSU three times each in the regular season. Those are four Regional hosts (meaning top 16 national teams) that the Jackets lost series to, and they beat the other one they faced in Clemson.
But who are the Jackets, really? Well, one thing we know about them is that they can hit, and they’re led by a pair of MLB prospects in Kel Johnson and Connor Justus. GT scores an average of almost seven runs per game, and they hit .307 as a team. Problems arise, though, when the Jackets put down their bats and head into the field. Danny Hall’s club has pitching problems, to say the least. Georgia Tech’s team ERA is a dreadful 4.65, and the Jackets surrendered eight runs or more in over a third of their games (20 of 59). So in a sentence, GT had a high powered offense but weak pitching staff.
Connecticut is the inverse; they can pitch, but they can’t hit. Anthony Kay headlines a strong, deep pitching staff up in Storrs that gives up 3.45 earned runs per nine innings. Adding to the Gators’ challenge, the Huskies plan to hold Kay until the Saturday game. That means if UConn and Florida both win (or the unthinkable happens an they both lose) the Gators will have to face one of the nation’s best pitchers.
Luckily for Florida, UConn’s offense can barely manage to match the numbers the Gators put up in the SEC… in the less-than-stellar American Conference. The Huskies hit a dreadful .277 as a team this year, .002 lower than Florida, and boy, are they streaky. Which means they can be completely shut down for a whole weekend, as they were against East Carolina and Cincinnati, scoring just 16 runs in those six games. So if these teams play, you can expect a very low scoring game.
Rounding out the Regional is Bethune Cookman, a team Florida is somewhat familiar with. The Gators crushed BCU 7-1 a month ago. That’s because the Wildcats were woefully unable to hit Scott Moss, who probably ranks as Florida’s sixth best pitcher. Good luck hitting Florida’s best. I’m not sure if that means Logan Shore or AJ Puk, but both are can’t miss MLB prospects. So, yeah. Good luck.
The only known threat the Wildcats have on their roster is outfielder Michael Cruz, who hit 16 of the Wildcats’ 45 homers on the year. For perspective, only 21 D1 baseball players have hit more, as he’s locked in a seven way tie for 22nd in that category. But aside from Cruz, the Wildcats are hitting a paltry .249 as a team, and that isn’t going to cut it against the Gators.
To sum that all up: Georgia Tech has the bats to cause trouble, Connecticut has the pitcher (Kay) to cause trouble and Bethune Cookman has one hitter who can cause trouble. But while Florida deserved an easier Regional field than this, maybe it’s good that they face some tougher competition in the earlier rounds. Besides, Florida has the pitchers (Puk, Shore, Dane Dunning, Moss, Alex Faedo and Shaun Anderson) and the hitters (Deacon Liput, Jonathan India, JJ Schwarz, Mike Rivera, Buddy Reed and Peter Alonso) to cause trouble.
So Florida’s the clear cut favorite to advance from this Regional and face the winner of the Tallahassee Regional in the Super Regional. And while you can never stress that upsets happen too many times given what happened two years ago, I feel confident that Florida will do what it needs to do and reach the next stage.