In the immediate aftermath of Florida’s 3-2 loss to Texas Tech, which ended the season of perhaps the best baseball team in school history, it was difficult for me to comprehend what had just happened.
And then it hit me. The same thing that happens to Florida baseball every year happened again.
The Gators always have good baseball teams. They’re always stockpiled with talent. They’re always in the mix for a national championship. To date, Florida’s 10 trips to the College World Series is a mark that only twelve other Division I schools have topped, and their five trips to Omaha in the last seven years are the most in the country.
Yet something about Omaha affects the Gators like the venom of a snake that crawls down your throat and bites one of your internal organs. For some reason that basic logic, psychology and physics can’t explain, Florida’s baseball team abruptly and completely shuts down at the College World Series.
The Gators have zero national championships to show for all those trips to TD AmeriTrade Park, and before that, Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, and hold a 14-21 all time record at the CWS. Nine of those wins came in three of those trips, leaving them with a gruesome 5-15 record in their other seven appearances. The most disturbing part of it all is that even in the years they do have some success, they stack a lot of mistakes on top of it- and the legacies of those teams are ultimately determined by the latter.
At this point, being a Gator baseball fan in June sort of feels like being a Cubs fan. Florida has had teams with varying amounts of talent and promise through the years, like the Cubs. Kevin O’Sullivan’s arrival in 2007 adjusted the average amount of talent in a given year upward, but while some of his teams have come close, none have taken home the ultimate prize, like the Cubs. And now, Florida’s baseball program has built up an extensive library of oh-so-close miserable failures… like the Cubs. The history is a long and anguishing one, so if you’re not familiar with it, brace yourselves.
It all began in 1988 with Joe Arnold. Florida won the SEC Tournament, and advanced to the World Series via the Tallahassee Regional by crushing FSU and Stetson by a combined score of 17-3 in their final two games. But UF was promptly sent to the losers’ bracket in Omaha, winning once before being demolished 10-1 by Arizona State.
Arnold led Florida back to Omaha three years later after again winning the SEC Tournament. That trip resulted in an 8-0 blowout of FSU, and a hard fought 2-1 victory over Fresno State, which was good. And that trip also resulted in back to back losses to LSU by scores of 8-1 and 19-8, which was decidedly not good. Florida’s Mario Linares crushed a pair of homers in that second game, but Gator pitchers gave up 14 hits and made things worse with three errors.
It was another five years before Florida made it back to Omaha, this time under Andy Lopez. Seven months before the Gators would claim their first ever football national championship, their baseball team easily took the SEC crown and waltzed into Omaha with a 48-16 record. The Gators kicked off the CWS with a 5-2 win over FSU before being upset by LSU. Rinse, repeat. Florida then beat FSU again to eliminate the Noles and set up a rematch with LSU- which they lost 2-1 thanks to three more errors, the last of which provided the Tigers with the winning run.
Lopez took his team back to Omaha two years later after again winning the SEC and claiming the nation’s top seed. That mattered not the least to Mississippi State, a #4 seed in their own Regional who snuck into the CWS with a losing record in SEC play, nor did it matter to fellow opening game loser Southern California. So Florida went two-and-que in Omaha for the first time, but it would not be the last time. The problem this time was pitching, as the Gators hit well but surrendered 26 runs in 14-13 and 12-10 defeats.
Fast forward to 2005, and enter Pat McMahon. That team was good, not great, though they won the SEC regular season title and received the #7 overall seed. But as the championship formula calls for, they got hot at the right time, sweeping through their Regional and easily dispatching FSU in the Super Regionals to reach Omaha. The Gators would knock off Tennessee, Nebraska and Arizona State to reach the game’s final stage for the first time: the CWS Championship Series. Florida then fell to Texas, 4-2 and 6-2, but for that team, this result was more than acceptable, as many didn’t think that team would even reach the World Series.
Those five seasons make up half the Gators’ appearances in the College World Series; Kevin O’Sullivan is responsible for the other half, as well as building a perennial national powerhouse. And he’s also responsible for seven unforgettable postseason meltdowns.
O’Sullivan appeared to have the program back on track in 2009, securing the nation’s #8 overall seed, but then they were stunned by Southern Miss in their own Super Regional. OK, fine, whatever, let’s reload and try again next year, right? Florida garnered the #3 national seed, managed to survive the Super Regional stage this time with a sweep of Miami, but promptly bowed out of Omaha with losses to UCLA and FSU.
But the real heartbreaker was the following year. The Gators put together an incredible season, winning both the SEC regular season and tournament crowns, and like the 2005 team, got hot at the right time. They did stumble in Game Two of their Super Regional matchup with Mississippi State, giving up a walk off home run to Nick Vickerson, but rebounded to win Game Three to return to Omaha, where they beat Texas and Vanderbilt twice to return to the final stage: the CWS Championship Series. Turns out they were saving their worst ineptitude for last. An eleventh inning defensive meltdown featuring two errors on one play gave South Carolina the winning run in the first game, and the Gators could muster just three runs in the two games despite collecting 14 hits en route to a South Carolina sweep.
Florida regrouped in 2012 with an even better regular season. That team, featuring Preston Tucker, Mike Zunino, Karsten Whitson and Hudson Randall, was considered by many to be the Gators’ best team ever. They sure looked like it, dominating everybody in their way en route to the #1 overall seed… and then their bats went silent in their second two-and-que exit in three years, this time at the hands of South Carolina and Kent State.
The most unbelievable collapse of all came in 2014. A down year in 2013 was quickly forgotten when the Gators reloaded in 2014, winning the SEC regular season championship with ease. As was customary for Florida at this point, O’Sullivan’s club received the #2 overall seed, and were considered a trendy pick to win it all. But not only did Florida not win it all, the Gators couldn’t even manage to get out of their own Regional. On a wet, dreary weekend in Gainesville, Florida was shocked by Charleston and North Carolina, leaving fans wondering if the program had reached its peak and was now turning around and heading back down.
Nonetheless, the Gators bounced back in 2015, winning the SEC Tournament to claim the #4 overall seed. And then they really picked up steam, sweeping through their Regional with ease before clobbering FSU twice in a row in the Supers to return to Omaha. Thus began a wild, wacky and downright weird week. Florida got things started by plastering Miami 15-3 on a night where everything went right, but followed that up with a puzzling 1-0 loss to Virginia. The Gators rebounded to bludgeon Miami again by a 10-2 score, and seemed on the verge of a breakthrough when they beat Virginia 10-5 to set up a winner-take-all national semifinal. But while the Gators couldn’t repeat the feat the following night, losing 5-4, it looked as though O’Sullivan finally had his team set up for a championship run in the future.
And we all know what happened this year.
Only Clemson and FSU have reached the College World Series more times than Florida without ever taking home the championship trophy. Maybe they can understand what it’s like to annually be in position to win it all and never actually do it. But for the most part, the Gators’ relationship with Omaha is a unique one.
There is no logical explanation for why such talented hitters mysteriously stop hitting, why future big league pitchers suddenly struggle with location or why such reliable fielders make errors in Omaha to an extent that easily exceeds those of any other team. It’s a bigger stage, but it’s a bigger stage for the other guys too. Everybody makes mistakes, but Florida makes more of them in Omaha. Every hitter goes into slumps, but no entire team does it in quite the en masse fashion as Florida in Omaha. It’s not a bad game, a bad week, or plain bad luck when it happens every god damn June.
2016 was supposed to be different.
Throw anything you ever heard about previous teams out the window. Yeah, 2012 was a really good team, sure, the Gators should have won in 2011, and yes, Florida was in a great position last year. None of those years were “the year.” 2016 was. Sadly, beating FSU in the Super Regionals for the third time in twelve years turned out to be more spectacular than it was useful, as all it was was a prelude to the ultimate failure.
There has never been a team in Gator baseball history that was as perfectly set up for a championship as this 2016 team was. Forget the fact that only three of the eight national seeds reached Omaha for a second. No Gator team ever had this much talent. Or this much experience. Or this deep a pitching staff. For God’s sake, the fourth best pitcher on this team was a first round pick in the MLB Draft. Five players on this team went in the first two rounds of the Draft, two more went in the third round and you can be sure there will be more when guys like JJ Schwarz and Alex Faedo are draft eligible next year. As far as experience goes, just about all of these players were part of the 2015 team that made a nice run in Omaha.
And there will never be a team in Gator baseball future that can possibly be this perfectly set up for a championship. You may get a team with similar talent, or similar experience, or a similarly deep pitching staff someday in the future, but you’ll never see a team with all three of those things to such a dizzying degree. It’s just not possible to recruit so much talent, and get that insane amount of talent such valuable experience, and have an endless stable of quality pitchers that you can rely on in the same year. This was lightning in a bottle, folks.
Put bluntly, this 2016 team was the best equipped to shake those dubious distinctions. And when they suffered the same devastating fate as the other nine Gator teams to reach Omaha before them, I realized two things.
One, it really is better to be lucky and/or hot at the right time than good. That’s not a myth, but rather a fact that has stood the test of time. The 1999 Miami Hurricanes are the only #1 overall seed to ever play up to their seeding and win the College World Series. And since Rice did it in 2003, only 2011 South Carolina and 2009 LSU have won it all after receiving one of the top eight national seeds. Inversely, the Gators have received a national seed seven times in the last eight years; only in two of those years did they win at least once in the College World Series. And in two of those years, they couldn’t even make the CWS.
Two, the Gators can never be counted on to win a national championship again. The goal for every team going forward should be to reach Omaha, and whatever happens there happens. That’s not to say the Gators will never actually win it, but rather that if it does happen, it will be nothing short of a miracle. Winning games at the College World Series is something that happens due in large part to a lot of variables that are neither in your control nor easy to predict, and the 2016 Gators proved that. It’s simply not realistic to declare a team “championship or bust” anymore, because this team had all the makings of a champion that you could dream of after the 2012 team appeared to as well. So never again will I, nor should you, label a Gator baseball team as “championship or bust.” It’s not fair to set ourselves up for heartbreak like that.
So what do we do now?
We root like hell for Florida, of course, just as the most loyal of Cubs fans have done in the 70+ years since Billy Sianis placed the Billy Goat Curse on their team. Just because it’s not fair to expect something doesn’t mean it’s not fair to continue to hope. And so we hope that someday, one of these teams that we continue to support in all kinds of weather will be ray of sunshine that finally breaks through the stormy clouds that have reigned above our baseball team since the dawn of time.