So close, and yet so far.
That’s been the mantra for Florida baseball over the past decade. The Gators reached the College World Series finals in 2005, and got swept by Texas. Five years later they made it back to the CWS, but faced the unfortunate “two and cue” fate that two teams face every year- they lost in the opening game to UCLA, and were eliminated by FSU. The year after that, they returned to the CWS finals, only to get swept by South Carolina. In 2012, they got “two and cued” in Omaha again, this time by South Carolina and Kent State.
And now 2015 can join those ranks, as the Gators were turned away by Virginia in the pool championship game with a heartbreaking 5-4 defeat.
Two wins away from a national championship in 2005. Five wins away in 2010. Two wins away in 2011. Five wins away in 2012. Three wins away in 2015. But no rings, and yet another season that ends in anguish.
The most recent one may have been the toughest to swallow of all.
This game defined the term “seesaw” when used in sports contexts. Virginia went up 1-0 in the first on a Matt Thaiss homer, but Peter Alonso answered with a homer of his own with JJ Schwarz on first to put Florida up 2-1. Virginia tied it back up, but Florida responded with another homer, this time by Harrison Bader to go up 3-2. UVA scored two more on a Kenny Towns double in the fifth to go up 4-3, but that lead didn’t last long; Mike Rivera drove in Schwarz an inning later to tie the game. But UVA took the lead for good in the seventh on a sac fly by Towns, and that was it for the scoring- and it for Florida’s season.
Virginia certainly got some help, though.
Kevin O’Sullivan made several questionable decisions, the worst of which was trying to double steal with one out in the third with Josh Tobias up, and JJ Schwarz on deck. I don’t think I’ll ever quite understand that. Anyway, Bader got thrown out at second, which crippled the inning; Tobias walked, and Schwarz hit a deep fly ball that would have scored Ryan Larson from third had there been less than two outs. Then there was the head scratching pitching change Sully seems to make once a year in these spots. He took the ball from Dane Dunning in the fifth after he’d gotten two outs and then given up a single, and gave it to Kirby Snead, who got hammered for two hits and two runs.
Then again, Sully is the one who’s gotten Florida to four College World Series in seven years. So if you’re one of those who thinks he should be fired because he “can’t get over the hump,” think again.
Virginia also got some help with some of the worst umpiring I’ve ever seen at a College World Series.
The strike zone was wildly inconsistent today, albeit for both teams, but especially for Dane Dunning. He’d get an outside pitch called a strike to start the at bat, but then a 1-2 pitch in the same spot would be called a ball. I don’t have a problem with different umpires having different strike zones as long as they’re consistent. But when Mike Rivera got plunked on the elbow with a pitch and the umpire made him come back to the plate, I about lost it. On this same day, we saw Pittsburgh Pirate hitter Jose Tabata break up a perfect game by leaning into a pitch and getting first base; Rivera stayed perfectly still and got drilled, yet was not given first base. Instead of being first and second with no outs, Rivera then hit into a double play. Chalk that one up as a save by the home plate ump for not giving Rivera the base as the rulebook says he should have.
But there were lots of could haves, should haves, and almosts today, and none of them serve as any consolation because none of them give Florida additional runs. The Gators’ season, whoever you want to blame this on, is over. It was a heartbreaking ending to a thrilling ride.
If it’s any consolation, the team Florida will bring back next year will be incredible. UF’s top starting pitcher, Logan Shore, is back. Their second best starting pitcher, AJ Puk, is back. Their third best starting pitcher, Alex Faedo, is back. Their fourth best starting pitcher, Dane Dunning… well, you get the idea. And the offense won’t miss a beat, either. The only pieces of their starting lineup they’ll definitely lose are Josh Tobias and Richie Martin; they may also lose Harrison Bader. But JJ Schwarz, Peter Alonso, Buddy Reed, Mike Rivera, Dalton Guthrie, Jeremy Vasquez and Ryan Larson will all definitely be back. That’s six or seven (pending Bader) of nine starters who will return in 2016, and seven or eight key offensive contributors. Not bad.
The 2015 Gators won the SEC, humiliated FSU twice in a row in the Super Regionals, and reached the College World Series. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. And no matter how devastating the heartbreak at the end, it’s still great to be a Florida Gator… in all kinds of weather.
Here’s to it being even greater to be a Florida Gator next June.