Something about playing FSU just seems to bring out the best in JJ Schwarz.
And his latest act of destruction against his in state rival sent his Gators back to the stage they’ve been dreaming of returning to for the better part of the last year: TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska. Such is the prize for beating your Super Regional opponent two out of three games, a feat Florida has now pulled off in each of the last two years and three times in the last twelve years against Florida State.
This one may have been the most rewarding.
After a tough setback in game one, the Gators bounced back with a dominant 5-0 victory in the second game to force a decisive Game Three, more than deserving of capitalization, with the winner taking the final slot in the College World Series. And in that decisive, capitalized Game Three, Florida grabbed the momentum early as Dalton Guthrie scored on a wild pitch to give the Gators a lead they would never relinquish. Peter Alonso then gave Florida a little more breathing room with a towering blast beyond the left field bleachers to make it 2-0 in the third.
But it seemed apparent that two runs wasn’t going to get the job done in this game, not with the way AJ Puk was struggling with his control. Puk walked six batters on the night in just 3.2 innings of work, and got himself into trouble in each of the first three innings. So Florida desperately needed some insurance.
And Schwarz delivered with a grand slam that will go down in Florida-FSU lore:
GRAND SLAM!!! JJ SCHWARZ!!! And the #Gators have busted this game wide open, leading FSU 6-0! https://t.co/9QS5RycDCE
— InAllKindsOfWeather.com (@AllKindsWeather) June 14, 2016
Schwarz can thank Dalton Guthrie and Buddy Reed for their singles to get on base, and Peter Alonso for… well, getting hit by a pitch to load the bases to set the stage for his first ever grand slam, the grandest of his seven homers in eleven career games against the Seminoles. More importantly than its grandiose, though, that blast proved to be the dagger.
The funny thing is, the Gators never really hit that well all weekend against a so-so FSU pitching staff. It was glaringly obvious in the first game because FSU was able to play small ball and squeak a few runs across, but it was rendered irrelevant in each of the last two nights because of shaky FSU defense and the Noles’ simultaneous inability to push across a single run. Yes, Schwarz and Alonso’s blasts were nice, but they were two of just seven extra base hits in the three game series, which against an FSU pitching staff with a collective ERA of nearly 4 is somewhat concerning.
And the pitching staff, while certainly solid overall, wasn’t perfect by any means. Alex Faedo had a rough go on Saturday in the loss, while AJ Puk- the #6 overall pick in the MLB Draft- lasted three rocky innings before getting in too deep in the fourth and turning it over to Dane Dunning. Of course, the other side of that is that the relievers were called upon in big situations, and got the job done- Dunning in long relief and Shaun Anderson to finish it off, each doing so on two separate occasions.
That just hammers home the point of how dominant this Gator team is. Florida pounded FSU 5-0 and 7-0 in back to back games despite not even playing their best. But no team, no matter how talented, is going to bring their A game every day or even every weekend. Sometimes, teams have to find ways to win with their B or C game. And after struggling on Saturday, the Gators were able to fight through adversity, get off the mat, and respond with two big wins to reach the College World Series. They may not have played the best baseball they’re capable of, but they did what they had to do in order to win. They took advantage of mistake pitches when they saw them, played sound defense, and pitched well enough to hold the Noles to three runs in as many games.
The fact that the Gators really didn’t play their best baseball and still beat their archival like a drum on consecutive nights to advance to the World Series, a line that I’m repeating simply because it feels so good to write, makes this Super Regional victory feel much better. But there’s no time to reflect or celebrate. Florida now jumps into an eight team pool that’s filled with Cinderella dangers such as Cal-Santa Barbara and Coastal Carolina, hungry overachievers in Texas Christian, Oklahoma State and Arizona and a pair of similarly dominant teams in Miami and Texas Tech. Failure to play their best baseball could spell trouble for the Gators in the ballpark that they’ve desperately craved to return to since last June.
Then again, championship teams find ways to overcome adversity, and Florida sure did that this past weekend. And that, more so than their underwhelming performance in eyeball test, is something to remember as the Gators head to Omaha.