Something about top ranked Gator bat and ball teams hosting Super Regionals against their archrivals seems to affect them like the venom of a particularly nasty snake.
And while the Gators remain two wins away from a return to Omaha, now they’re also one game away from elimination.
Florida’s bats struggled early, often and throughout in a shocking Game One loss to FSU, a team the Gators swept in convincing fashion in the regular season and crushed twice in last year’s Super Regional, by the ugly score of 3-0. The Gators mustered all of two hits against Drew Carlton, who went the distance and never allowed a runner to get into scoring position.
That’s not to say Florida didn’t barrel up some balls and hit them hard, because they did. Most notably, Mike Rivera was off by about a half nanometer on one pitch in the eighth, which turned into a fly out to the warning track. JJ Schwarz also put a charge into one, but directly at the left fielder. And at least a third of the outs by my count were ground balls (including one double play) that, had they been hit a few feet left or right, would have found the outfield for base hits. That’s all bad luck; you can’t ask a hitter to place the ball perfectly. If they do, great, but all you can realistically request of them is to hit it hard.
But even this was a rare occurance. Four balls were really hit hard in nine innings, and none of them went for hits. That won’t win games. The more balls you can square up on and smack, or even just hit on the ground with a decent amount of force, the better chance you have of finding a hole either in the infield for a base hit or the outfield gaps for extra bases (or better yet, out of the park) and getting hits. And just going it four times in one game just isn’t good enough.
This Gator team is talented to the stars and back, and they’ve really grown on me as the year progressed. Unfortunately, they picked the worst night of the year to play their worst game of the season.
Yesterday, Kevin O’Sullivan raised some eyebrows and drew some heat for starting Alex Faedo, the typical game three starter, in the opener. And though he struck out five of the first six batters, he then lost his control, gave up a few hits and walked in a run. Dane Dunning didn’t do badly, but he clearly didn’t have his best stuff either and the Noles were able to push two more across. This result only sent more criticism flying his way.
But let’s face it, this is all irrelevant when your offensive output is zero. Blaming Sully, Faedo or Dunning for this loss is foolish. It’s like blaming a faulty taillight when your car’s breaks don’t work and you smash into a cop car at a red light. Florida usually wins when they give up three runs because their offense is capable of exploding for ten.
And now, that’s exactly what they need to do, because failure to do so could spell the end of their season before they can even reach the stage on which they’re supposed to finish the job after coming so close a year ago.
This is a position Florida is not used to, for sure. They’re the ones who usually dish out the beating, which usually results from either a tremendous pitching performance or an offensive fireworks show (and sometimes both). Now they got thrown down, and are stunned.
But this is where we find out what Florida is made of. The Miami Hurricanes won a national championship as the number one overall seed in the first year of the current 64 team format, and to this day, they remain the only team to do so. By Monday night, the Gators will do one of two things; they’ll either join every single #1 overall seed since those 1999 Canes as failing to live up to their billing, or they’ll prove to be a resilient, determined bunch that can bounce back from adversity, get off the mat and find ways to win- which in this case would mean shaking off the memories of one of the worst offensive performances in Gator baseball history (seriously, count the times Florida has ever been held to one or no hits… ever) and come out slugging their way to two straight wins.
And thus, a trip to Omaha.