Florida’s first baseball championship ended with a mystery.
After catching the final out of the Gators’ 6-1 victory against LSU in the College World Series finals on Tuesday night, JJ Schwarz tucked the ball in his glove and tossed both aside for the traditional on-field dog pile.
When he returned to the glove, the ball was gone.
“Whoever took Tom Brady’s jersey took that ball,” Schwarz said.
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The search was still on when UF boarded its team bus shortly after midnight outside of TD Ameritrade Park — the Gators’ happy home for the past two weeks.
The concerns were much greater early in this championship season, including a struggling offense and surprising losses.
Jacksonville beat the Gators, then Florida Gulf Coast swept a two-game series, and later Auburn won all three against Florida on the opening weekend of Southeastern Conference play.
“The Auburn series, that was a difficult one,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said after Tuesday’s championship victory.
But the following weekend, Florida won two out of three against LSU.
“Maybe our team started believing a little bit,” O’Sullivan said.
There was a slight regression in early April, when Tennessee won a pair of 10-inning games in Gainesville, but from that point Florida went 16-3 in the SEC to share the league title with LSU.
The wins often weren’t pretty though. Florida came to Omaha hitting .262, the lowest batting average of O’Sullivan’s 10-year tenure.
But great pitching from starters like Jackson Kowar, who closed Tuesday’s title clincher, Brady Singer and Alex Faedo, and the emergence of closer Michael Byrne enabled the Gators to go 19-7 in one-run games.
“That guy has been the hero this year,” Kowar said of Byrne.
Byrne set a school record with 19 saves. He hoped for a 20th on Tuesday, but he was pulled in the eighth inning.
Instead, Byrne was put in charge of taking the wood-and-glass national championship trophy off the field.
“Nobody else wanted to hold it,” Byrne said. “It’s pretty heavy, but I wouldn’t want to be holding anything else.”
Byrne came on for freshman Tyler Dyson, who gave up one run in six innings in his second start. Dyson showed command of his fastball and of understatement.
“I think this start went a little better than my first one,” said Dyson, referencing a 1 2/3-innings start against Florida State earlier this season.
Dyson could take the spot of Faedo, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the CWS and who will move onto professional ball after being drafted in the first round by the Detroit Tigers.
“He’s our future,” catcher Mike Rivera said of Dyson. “If you didn’t know, now you know.”
The sophomore Singer — whom LSU coach Paul Mainieri said might be the best SEC pitcher he has ever seen — will return along with Kowar, also a sophomore.
“I think Florida baseball is in great shape,” O’Sullivan said.
“In this business you get to enjoy this for a little bit … as soon as we get back home you have exit meetings with your players and some guys are going off into pro ball, some kids are going off into summer ball, and there’s scholarship stuff that needs to be in by July 1, and you’ve got to figure out the draft — who is staying and who is going.”
That’s a lot to do, but O’Sullivan need not worry about that missing ball. Rivera has a solution.
“We can make one up,” he said.
Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan had many duties at the College World Series. Some of the more urgent ones had nothing to do with baseball.
“I’ve had to make sure the spinners are working and the iPad is charged,” O’Sullivan said.
Along for the championship ride were his daughter Payton, 6, and son Finn, 4, each of whom were on the field after Tuesday’s championship game.
“To have them experience this with me means the world,” O’Sullivan said.
The younger O’Sullivans have been with the team much of the season, helping provide, at times, perspective and others comic relief.
“I never sleep,” O’Sullivan said to a laugh in the postgame press conference. “When you have a four- and six-year-old like I do that have a lot of personality there’s no need for an alarm clock.”
THIS AND THAT
▪ After a super regional plagued with rain delays, the Gators were able to play in Omaha free of weather disruptions but just barely. Massive, tornado-producing storms swept through Omaha on June 16, one day before play began, forcing the cancellation of the CWS opening ceremonies. The weather remained a non-factor until about three hours after the Gators raised the trophy Tuesday night. Lightning cracked the sky and howling winds blew rain sideways throughout the early morning hours Wednesday.
▪ Florida pitchers struck out 65 batters — the third most in the CWS. Only Arizona (75 in 2016) and Arizona State (77 in 1967) were better.
▪ This year’s College World Series set two significant records. Total attendance was an all-time best 357,646 (an average of 22,353) and there were 23 home runs hit, by far the most since the tournament moved to TD Ameritrade Park in 2011. There were 10 hit last year.
▪ This is the fifth consecutive year a team has won its first baseball championship. Florida joins UCLA (2013), Vanderbilt (2014), Virginia (2015), and Coastal Carolina (2016) as newcomers to trophy stand.
UF’s key moments on the way to the title
June 5: Austin Langworthy’s three-run homer breaks a scoreless tie in the sixth as Florida beat Bethune-Cookman 6-1 in a regional final. Langworthy also threw four innings for his first win of the year.
June 11: Ryan Larson’s game-ending single gives Florida a 2-1, 11-inning win against Wake Forest in a super regional.
June 13: Tyler Dyson throws five shutout innings after a rain delay as the Gators beat Wake Forest 3-0 to advance to the College World Series for the 11th time.
June 18/24: There are too many Alex Faedo moments to put into this list, but his last two starts were his most significant. Twice in the CWS he led the Gators’ to 3-0 wins against Texas Christian, throwing 14 1/3 scoreless innings while striking out 22.
June 26: Jonathan India’s two-run double and Brady Singer’s 12 strikeouts — a CWS finals record — give Florida a 4-3 win against Louisiana State.
June 27: Dyson tops himself, throwing six strong innings while Deacon Liput, who had 12 RBI in the NCAA tournament, and JJ Schwarz provided all the offense Florida would need to win its first title.