The stakes for the Florida baseball team are as high as they could be for a regular-season finale. The fifth-ranked Gators (38-14, 19-8 SEC) play host to the No. 6 Kentucky Wildcats (36-16, 18-9 SEC) for a 3-game series starting Thursday that will determine if Florida wins its fourth SEC regular-season title in 10 years under coach Kevin O’Sullivan.
Florida’s formula for winning the conference is rather simple: A 3-game sweep guarantees the Gators win the regular-season title. Taking 2 of 3 guarantees that Florida wins the East and at least a share of the overall conference crown. UF wins the conference outright with 2 wins this weekend if LSU also loses at least 1 of its 3 games to Mississippi State this weekend.
For the Gators to do that, the whole team must be clicking, much like it has over the past month, to put itself in contention. Here are five aspects that will determine whether Florida will win its series with Kentucky.
5. Nick Horvath setting the tone for the bullpen
Nick Horvath usually is O’Sullivan’s first pitcher out of the bullpen, a junior responsible for setting the tone late in games. He doesn’t stay long — Horvath has thrown more than two innings in a game just five times this season — but he’s been effective as of late.
A 5-foot-11 lefty, Horvath allowed 1 earned run over his past 7 appearances in SEC play, scattering 3 hits, striking out 6 and not allowing a walk over 7 innings of work. He struck out 4 batters in 4 innings against Alabama last weekend.
After Horvath, any combination of Frank Rubio, Garrett Milchin and Kirby McMullen will come into the game before sophomore closer Michael Byrne is called. Byrne is tied for Florida’s single-season save record at 13.
4. Mark Kolozsvary’s consistency behind the plate
Mark Kolozsvary came into the season as the Gators’ No. 3 catcher and occasional designated hitter with just 35 career at-bats. However, Mike Rivera broke the hamate bone in his right hand against Florida State on April 11. Kolozsvary stepped in and played well. In his 14 starts since Rivera’s injury (11 at catcher, three at designated hitter), Kolozsvary has a .304 batting average with 8 doubles, 9 RBIs and 9 runs scored. He has made one error.
3. Florida starting pitching vs. Kentucky’s bats
The Gators have one of the top starting staffs in the country in junior Alex Faedo and sophomores Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar. They have a collective 2.26 ERA, 238 strikeouts and 87 walks in 253 2/3 innings. When they are on their game, they have the potential to be one of the toughest weekend rotations in the country.
The Wildcats, on the other side, have one of the best batting lineups in college baseball. They pace the SEC and are in the top-10 nationally in batting average (.322, sixth nationally), on-base percentage (.424, second nationally) and slugging (.507, fifth nationally). Seven regulars in the starting lineup are hitting .300 or better, and all of Kentucky’s main hitters average at least .270. First baseman Evan White (.391 batting average), outfielder Tristan Pompey (.379 batting average, team-best 78 hits) and second baseman Riley Mahan (team-best 13 home runs and 54 RBIs) pave the way.
The series likely will come down to which team breaks first.
2. Infield defense
When healthy, Florida’s infield defense is loaded defensively. Well, the Gators are healthy at all four positions, and their defensive prowess is showing.
Sophomore second baseman Deacon Liput has one error in the field on 129 chances, good for a .995 fielding mark.
Junior shortstop Dalton Guthrie, despite having 8 errors on the year, is a web gem waiting to happen, making improbable grabs for ground balls through the left side seem routine and making routine plays look like a run-in-the-mill practice session.
Look no further than Florida’s series finale against Georgia on April 30, when Guthrie made three incredible defensive plays to keep the Gators in the game.
Dalton Guthrie. Dalton Guthrie. Dalton Guthrie.
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) April 30, 2017
Sophomore third baseman Jonathan India improved remarkably from his freshman season. His .955 fielding percentage is 22 points higher than his first year on campus, and he seems the leading candidate to replace Guthrie at shortstop if Guthrie goes pro after this season.
And Christian Hicks and JJ Schwarz at first base showed a steady improvement as they both learn the position. Hicks was a shortstop; Schwarz a catcher.
Florida leads the SEC and is 11th nationally in fielding percentage (.981) and turned 43 double plays. The defensive consistency that O’Sullivan prides his team on must be on full display this weekend.
1. Will the offense stay hot?
Florida had at least 9 hits in 11 of its past 12 games. Power hitters Schwarz and Nelson Maldonado have been in a groove, as has senior Ryan Larson. But with the SEC’s leading hitting team coming to McKethan Stadium this week, the Gators must find a way to stay hot. That starts with Larson in the leadoff spot and trickles down to Kolozsvary and Liput at the bottom of the order. If Florida hitters can keep pace with Kentucky, the chances will be high for an SEC title and momentum heading into the postseason.