University of Florida

UF baseball eyes a second national title. Here's its path to the College World Series

Florida players celebrate with the trophy after defeating LSU in Game 2 to win the NCAA College World Series baseball finals in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, June 27, 2017.
Florida players celebrate with the trophy after defeating LSU in Game 2 to win the NCAA College World Series baseball finals in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, June 27, 2017. AP Photo

The Florida Gators’ road toward a second-straight College World Series title officially begins this weekend.

And, as most expected, the Gators enter the postseason as the team to beat despite their recent struggles.

Florida was named the No. 1 overall seed in the 64-team 2018 NCAA Baseball Tournament field on Monday. UF became the first team to be the No. 1 overall seed three times. It's also the ninth time the Gators have been a top-eight national seed in coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s 11 seasons.

UF will host Florida Atlantic, Jacksonville and Columbia at McKethan Stadium starting Friday for the double-elimination regional round to open the tournament. Should Florida advance, it will face the winner of the Raleigh Regional hosted by No. 16 seed North Carolina State in a best-of-3 Super Regional for a spot in the eight-team College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.

But if the Gators want to make a deep postseason run, they’ll need to get out of their recent slump.

Florida (42-17), which has been ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 all season in the D1Baseball poll and won its second-straight SEC regular-season title, has lost five of its last six games. UF saw its streak 19 consecutive weekend series wins fall when it was swept by Mississippi State to close out the regular season.

And then at the SEC Tournament, Florida opened play in Hoover, Alabama, with a 4-3 win over LSU before losing its next two games 8-2 to Arkansas and 11-0 (7 innings) in a rematch against LSU.

"We've just got to get a couple guys going and get a couple guys back that have been banged up a little bit," O'Sullivan told reporters Saturday. "Bottom line is we'll play at home again next weekend and we're looking forward to getting back on the field on Friday."

If Florida returns to form, it has the talent to make a deep run in the tournament and challenge for a title should they make it to compete for a national title.

Aces Brady Singer (10-1, 2.25 ERA) and Jackson Kowar (9-4, 3.21 ERA) along with closer Michael Byrne (1.99 ERA, 13 saves) lead Florida on the mound. Third baseman and Coral Springs native Jonathan India (.362 batting average, 17 home runs, 42 RBI), catcher JJ Schwarz (.325 average, 12 home runs, 42 RBI) and outfielder Wil Dalton (.259 average, 16 home runs, 50 RBI) pace a loaded lineup that ranks tied for fifth nationally in home runs (81) and 16th nationally in slugging (.472). Schwarz, who suffered a right hand injury in the Mississippi State series, is day-to-day and his status for the regional is uncertain.

Last year, the Gators entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 3 seed after a strong second half of the regular season and fought its way through each round of the postseason before sweeping LSU in the CWS championship series to win the program’s first national championship.

Could a second national championship be in store for the Gators? The journey begins this week.

As for the rest of the state, Florida State and Stetson join the Gators as regional hosts from the Sunshine State. Six Florida teams are in the tournament overall.

FSU (43-17), which won the ACC Tournament on Sunday, will host a regional for the 35th time in program history. The Seminoles, who hold the No. 7 overall seed, are looking for their first national championship and will host Mississippi State, Oklahoma and Samford. They are paired with the Clemson Regional, setting up a potential All-ACC Super Regional.

The Stetson Hatters (45-11), winners of the A-Sun regular-season and tournament championships, will serve as an opening-round host for the first time in program history as the No. 11 overall seed. South Florida, Oklahoma State and Hartford will play in Deland.

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