OMAHA, Neb. — Mike Rivera isn’t one to be blunt. He knows exactly where the 2017 Florida baseball team ranks in school history.
“I’ll say right now that we are definitely the greatest team to ever come out of Florida,” Florida’s junior catcher said. “We’re the first ones to finish it. No matter what rosters we had in the past. The freshman team that I was on, the sophomore team. This is the team. The greatest team in Florida history.”
Florida won its first national championship in school history Wednesday night with a 6-1 win over LSU. It was the kind of win that came in waves. The Gators dominated the first six innings, held off furious LSU comebacks in the seventh and eighth innings, dominated the bottom of the eighth once more before finally cruising to victory.
In a way, that’s how the 2017 Florida baseball season went. Just when things looked easy, they got hard. And just when things looked like they couldn’t get any harder, they did. This was a team that was swept in its first series of SEC play. This was a team that battled injuries and couldn’t find reliable bullpen arms and watched three everyday starters batted worse than .250. It was a team that won elimination games in Regionals and Super Regionals and the College World Series.
And it was a team that won a national championship.
The 2017 Florida baseball team was nowhere near the most productive team in school history. Rivera was the first to acknowledge that. He described the 2015 squad as an All-Star team, a perfectly engineered roster with superstars at every position. And the 2016 team was a facsimile of that, cruising into Omaha only to lose back-to-back games to start and return to Gainesville.
Then there were the 2017 Gators. They were a lot like the 2002 Oakland Athletics of Moneyball fame. Their pitching was incredible, led by Alex Faedo playing the part of Barry Zito, Brady Singer working his inner Tim Hudson and Jackson Kowar serving the Mark Mulder role. The offense was patchwork. Sure, there were guys like JJ Schwarz and Nelson Maldonado to hold the middle of the order together. But Florida hit .259 as a team. For the season. Without a single player who hit better than .300.
“Everyone was bashing us and talking about how bad we were in the beginning and talking about how we weren’t going to get a regional,” Rivera said. “I was like ‘Alright, keep talking. Keep talking.’ We can’t pitch. We can’t hit. Now those people understand that it’s not just about hitting or pitching. It’s not about your stats.”
Put the stats aside. This Florida team just won games. The Gators won 24 games by two runs or fewer in 2017, 19 of which by just one run. Five of those wins were either 1-0 or 2-0.
This wasn’t the most talented Florida baseball team. But what it lacked in top-end production, it made up for in lessons learned. Just ask ace Alex Faedo. A two-time College World Series loser, Faedo knew a thing or two about what it meant to come up short. And after two years of suffering disappointment as an underclassman, Faedo made his sole year as an upperclassman count, winning the College World Series’ Most Outstanding Player.
But he said the lessons he learned all came from those two years of comparative failure, of watching the veterans who came before him lose with grace and learning what it meant to truly go out a winner.
“I think being here twice and not winning the final game twice was hard for us,” Faedo said. “But they showed us how to battle through adversity. We just figured out a way this year.”
For a handful of Florida baseball players, it doesn’t feel real yet. Sophomore starting pitcher and all-tournament team member Brady Singer joked that he still feels like he’ll have to wake up for practice tomorrow. Nelson Maldonado was so overwhelmed that he said he doesn’t think the victory will sink in for a week. Rivera said he expects to wake up with a headache Wednesday because he can’t stop smiling.
That swell of emotions comes from a lot of places. It comes from the satisfaction of a job well done. It comes from the validation of achieving something you’ve worked for years to get. And it comes from the historical stakes, the knowledge that these players didn’t just win in 2017, but also for the 2011 team that finished as national runners-up and the 1988 team that was Florida’s first in Omaha and the 1952 team that won Florida its first SEC title.
“To be able to represent those guys as a team, hopefully we did them justice,” pitcher Jackson Kowar said. “We’re a tough, gritty team. I probably did some guys proud. I’m glad we could do it for all the other guys who came before us and got us the stadium we’ve got and get us to where we are. I’m proud that we could do that for the guys who came before us.”
And to Faedo, the ascendent superstar of the squad and the center of a championship team, that connection to the past and the future is the best part of the victory.
“Hopefully we’ll be remembered forever,” he said.