It’s no stretch to say that Florida baseball is one of the most historically successful programs in the country. Let’s run through the numbers. They’ve made 31 NCAA Tournaments, reached nine College World Series (only 14 schools have more), won 13 SEC regular season championships (only LSU and Alabama have more) and seven SEC Tournament Championships (only LSU has more).
But no national championship.
In order to call a college program elite, that program must have at least one national title. Gator baseball ranks near the top of the country in a lot of other checkmarks used to determine teams’ prestige, but they are lacking the most important stat of all.
This current team can fix that in the span of a week.
Four of Florida’s nine trips to Omaha have come under Kevin O’Sullivan. That’s some solid evidence that he’s had some really, really good teams, and perhaps none better than the 2012 team- the last Gator squad to make it to Omaha. That team blew through the SEC, its Regional and then its Super Regional without really breaking a sweat. That team had outstanding pitchers such as Jonathan Crawford, Karsten Whitson and Hudson Randall, and a ridiculously explosive lineup featuring Preston Tucker, Mike Zunino and Brian Johnson. That team was the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, and played like you’d expect a #1 overall seed to play for much of the year.
But that team also disintegrated under the pressure when it counted most. Tucker was a senior. So was Nolan Fontana. So was Daniel Pigott. And several juniors, including Johnson and Zunino, knew they were headed to the pros after the season. Instead of playing inspired baseball for the last time in Gator uniforms, Florida imploded and lost back to back games to South Carolina and Kent State. The careers of several of Florida’s best players were- unceremoniously and mysteriously- over.
Why it played out that way, I couldn’t tell you. You’d think such a veteran squad would be the most likely to face the pressure and play their best. I mean, if such an upperclassman heavy team with two previous College World Series berths in their backgrounds couldn’t be counted on to win big games, what team could?
Maybe the answer is the exact inverse of the obvious.
This current Florida team is young, inexperienced, and sometimes careless- but damn it, they’re unbelievably talented.
Kevin O’Sullivan just watched his shortstop (Richie Martin) get selected with the 20th overall pick in the MLB Draft. Martin is hitting .292 with 33 RBI. That puts him at seventh and eighth on the team, respectively. Think about that- Martin was a top 20 pick in the MLB Draft, and there are six players on this team with a higher batting average, and seven with more RBI. And that takes nothing away from Martin, who’s a tremendous fielder and more than competent at the plate, but rather goes to show that this lineup features an array of freakishly talented hitters.
Let’s look ahead briefly to next year to illustrate a point. Florida will definitely return JJ Schwarz, Mike Rivera, Dalton Guthrie, Jeremy Vasquez and Peter Alonso. They’ll probably return Harrison Bader and Buddy Reed as well. I’m not certain that Martin is gone, and I’m not certain that he’ll return, either, so mark him down as a possibility. And the Gators will return their top four pitchers in Logan Shore, AJ Puk, Dane Dunning and Alex Faedo.
The only piece from this team that Florida will lose is Josh Tobias. They’ll miss him, no doubt. But just take a look at who will be and who should be returning next year.
The point I wanted to illustrate was this: Florida’s current team is so young, with so much ahead of them, that they have every reason to sit back and have fun at the College World Series, and just play loose on the field. Whereas the 2012 team played tight and nervous, this team doesn’t feel any of that. With the exception of Tobias, none of these players know what pressure at the World Series feels like, which means they figure to play without any nerves holding them back.
At this point, that’s all it comes down to. Florida will need a great outing from Logan Shore to beat Miami on Saturday, and they’ll need great hitting, and the same goes for every ensuing game, but that will all come with playing baseball the same way they did to get them to Omaha in the first place. Nothing special is required. This team’s motivation is as clean and simple as can be- they want to win a championship. There’s no “greatest senior class making its final run together” storyline, no “last chance to make history” mindset and no pressure of being the #1 overall seed. There’s no special storyline, or pressure, or extra incentive to win that could potentially get engrained in the young Gators’ heads in the wrong way. None of that. Just win games and move on. That’s all they’re there for.
This team appears to be playing its best baseball of the season now, even as (or maybe because) the stages get bigger and bigger each game. They’re young, and they’re hungry, and they seem to be as logical a pick as any to win the national championship. And if they do, they can be the group that cements the Florida baseball program as one of the country’s greatest.