How did this happen?
How did this Florida Gators baseball team — the one that was swept by Florida Gulf Coast, lost its first midweek game of the season to Jacksonville and was swept again by Auburn to open Southeastern Conference play — make it here, to the college baseball season’s final series?
The answer starts with pitching. With a rotation that’s carried the Gators all season long, as well as strong defense behind it. And the other question — the question of whether Florida can defeat LSU when the College World Series finals begin on Monday at 6 p.m. in Omaha — likely lies with UF’s rotation as well, since its offense and starpower aren’t what they’ve been in recent years.
“We’ve just found a way,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said of his team getting this far. “We’ve got a gritty bunch. … It’s been ugly at times. But we’ve just found a way.”
On Saturday against TCU, that “way” was junior starter Alex Faedo. When a win meant the Gators advancing to the finals and a loss meant going home, Faedo gave his team 7.1 scoreless innings to lead them over the Horned Frogs. On Monday, in Game 1 of the three-game series against LSU, Florida (50-19) will look to sophomore Brady Singer to do the same.
Singer has been strong as Florida’s No. 2 starter this season, compiling an 8-5 record with a 3.18 ERA and averaging just under a strikeout per inning. In the College World Series, he went seven innings and allowed one run against Louisville in his only appearance. And against LSU (52-18) earlier this season, he tossed a complete game and allowed one run to give Florida the regular season series victory.
With Singer throwing Monday, that leaves Faedo and sophomore Jackson Kowar as O’Sullivan’s two remaining weekend starters. But Faedo just pitched on Saturday, which means he’s out for Tuesday. And Kowar pitched on Friday, which means he’s out as well.
O’Sullivan mentioned relievers like freshman Sam Dyson and sophomore closer Michael Byrne as options for Tuesday, and while he said Faedo, the 18th-overall pick in the 2017 MLB draft, is probably off limits in game three, he didn’t slam the door completely.
“We’ll see,” he said. “The only thing I’m worried about right now is Monday night with Singer.”
On offense, the matchup favors LSU. The Tigers possess the second-best batting average in the SEC (.291), while the Gators rank 11th out of 14. That isn’t lost on O’Sullivan, but he said he thinks his team’s bats have been better lately.
It’s also apparent to O’Sullivan that this Gators team doesn’t have the big names of past teams. Just last year, for example, Florida produced two first-round draft picks and three second-round draft picks. This year, Faedo was the only UF player taken in the first five rounds.
But none of that matters to O’Sullivan, who said he knew this team could be special from the beginning thanks to its pitching and defense, which rank second and tied for first in the SEC, respectively. Even if the offensive numbers aren’t there, and the pitchers are young and players have been injured, he thought this team could accomplish what last year’s couldn’t: Reaching the College World Series finals and, possibly, winning Florida’s first-ever national title.
“It’s been very challenging throughout the year,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve had to overcome a lot of things. But at the end of the day, we’re going to give it our best shot against a really, really good LSU team.”