GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida Gators baseball team could have folded after being swept by Auburn to open SEC play.
It could have folded after injuries began mounting up. First it lost outfielder Austin Langworthy (broken right hand) for a month at the start of conference play. Then shortstop Dalton Guthrie (right shoulder) and third baseman Jonathan India (right elbow) missed time in the heart of the SEC slate. Then catcher Mike Rivera (broken right hand) was out for the final month.
They could have folded under the pressure of all the 1-run games, the battles that could have gone one way or another with one swing.
“We never made excuses and we never felt sorry for ourselves,” pitcher Jackson Kowar said. “… We just strapped it up.”
And now, after an uphill battle, the Florida Gators are SEC champions for the fourth time under coach Kevin O’Sullivan.
The fifth-ranked Gators (40-15, 21-9) clinched a share of the regular-season title after taking a series-clinching 6-4 win over Kentucky on Saturday. It was Florida’s sixth consecutive conference series win to close out the regular season.
“We started off pretty rough,” said outfielder Nelson Maldonado, who recorded 4 RBI in Florida’s championship-clinching win on Saturday, “but we kept winning and we kept our heads up.”
Florida’s final regular-season series against Kentucky summed up the emotions the Gators fought through all season. The Gators dropped the opener 12-4 on Thursday before coming back to tie the series with a 14-3 win on Friday and clinching it Saturday.
“It shows a lot of grit coming from our team,” Maldonado said. “We fought a hard battle and we came back.”
That grit will be needed as Florida shifts its attention to postseason play. The Gators begin play in the SEC Tournament on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. ET. As the tournament’s No. 1 seed, Florida will play the winner of the Tuesday elimination game between No. 8 seed Auburn and No. 9 seed Ole Miss.
“That’s what postseason is all about: Being able to keep your nerves in those situations,” Kowar said. “We have a bunch coming up. I think we’re as prepared as probably any team in the country.”
As O’Sullivan reflected Saturday on winning the conference championship, he took a minute to think back on how far his team has come.
He started the season having to replace eight players — including two starting pitchers, four relief pitchers, his best power hitter in Peter Alonso and his best defensive outfielder in Buddy Reed — who were taken in the 2016 MLB Draft.
O’Sullivan instantly had to rely on players who had either spot roles or no role at all in the field last season.
There is senior Ryan Larson, who wasn’t in the starting lineup to open the season and has since become one of the Gators’ most reliable offensive playmakers. He batted .320 over the course of the regular season with 8 doubles, 5 home runs and 23 RBI.
There is infielder Christian Hicks, who has rotated around to fill whatever defensive holes the Gators hadb because of injuries. The junior has a career-high 50 hits and 4 home runs along with his .278 batting average.
There is catcher Mark Kolozsvary, who spent his first two seasons behind JJ Schwarz and Rivera. Over his last 17 games since becoming a regular starter on the weekend, Kolozsvary is batting .327 with 9 extra-base hits, 14 RBI and 14 runs scored.
And there’s sophomore Michael Byrne, who emerged as Florida’s closer two weeks into SEC play. He is tied for the Gators’ single-season saves record with 13.
“There’s so many good stories just within our team,” O’Sullivan said, “which makes it even more enjoyable.”
Guthrie will not play in the SEC Tournament this week after spraining his right ankle awkwardly hitting the first-base bag in the first inning while legging out an infield single. This will force O’Sullivan to once again make adjustments to its infield, namely at shortstop and first base.
Hicks, who has spent most of his time in the field at first base when both India and Guthrie were healthy, likely will move over to shortstop. This will leave Schwarz and sophomore Blake Reese as the likely candidates to play first base. If Schwarz is at first base, Kolozsvary likely will take the lead role behind home plate. Rivera, who O’Sullivan said was available to play against Kentucky as the team’s designated hitter, also could catch depending on how much the hamate bone in his right hand has healed.