GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Give Florida baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan credit.
Well, lots of credit. First, for steering the program to another terrific regular season and positioning the Gators for what should be a favorable NCAA Tournament seed.
But also for staying levelheaded and reiterating time and again that he believed in this team despite any obstacles — self-inflicted or otherwise — that popped up.
The same Florida baseball team that opened SEC play 0-3 and later 6-6 now enters the final week of the conference race atop the standings at 19-8 with only a three-game series at home against Kentucky (Thursday through Saturday) standing in the way of a regular-season title.
“We’ve just been swinging the bats really well. It’s not easy to win this time of the year against anybody, let alone [an] SEC team on the road,” O’Sullivan said after Florida finished a three-game sweep on Sunday at Alabama. “We’ll pack up and go home, give the guys off [Monday] and practice Tuesday and Wednesday and get ready for a really good Kentucky team. Can’t ask for anything more — we’re playing for a chance to win the SEC regular season, and we’ve got a one-game lead with three to go at home.”
As he noted, the resurgence of the lineup has fueled the No. 5 Gators (38-14) on their second-half surge.
After a 2-1 win in the series opener Friday night, their bats were busy in wins of 13-6 and 10-5 to close out the sweep. They rapped out 28 hits over those final two games.
At this point, there might not be a hotter team in college baseball.
Florida has swept its last three SEC series, has won 10 straight SEC games overall and 12 of its last 13 games.
The final hurdle in the way of the regular-season championship is not easy. Kentucky is one game back of the Gators at 18-9 in SEC play, while LSU enters the week atop the West standings also at 18-9 with Mississippi State a game back at 17-10.
But who would have thought five weeks ago that Florida would be in this position?
Well, other than O’Sullivan.
JJ Schwarz keeps slugging
Junior JJ Schwarz clubbed 2 more home runs over the weekend to push his team-leading total to 9 and eclipse his sophomore total of 7.
Schwarz, who started his collegiate career with an 18-homer freshman campaign, now has 34 career homers, which is good for ninth place in the program record book.
For the weekend, Schwarz finished 4 for 11 with 3 runs and 5 RBI to keep up his torrid pace.
In his last 13 games, starting with the finale against South Carolina in which he hit a go-ahead grand slam, he is 18 for 44 (.409) with 12 runs, 19 RBI and 5 HRs while raising his season average from .239 to .280.
Inside the numbers
Schwarz wasn’t the only hot bat over the weekend.
Ryan Larson went 5 for 11 with 3 runs and 4 RBI; Dalton Guthrie was 4 for 11 with 5 runs, including a homer; and Nelson Maldonado was 4 for 8 with a homer, 6 RBI and 4 runs.
Larson remains the team’s leading batter with a .336 batting average. Maldonado’s own second-half surge has him at .329.
Those two, along with Schwarz, have been driving forces in igniting Florida’s once-slumping offense.
Larson might be the best story of the season after going from senior bench player to unexpected leading hitter. Starting in the April 7 game against Tennessee, the veteran outfielder is batting .385 (35 for 91) with 20 runs scored and 17 RBI.
Maldonado, meanwhile, has been as steady as any batter in the lineup since Florida got off to that 6-6 start in SEC play. Starting with the next series at Vanderbilt, the sophomore outfielder is batting .375 (21 for 56) with 18 runs and 17 RBI. In fact, 10 of his 24 total RBI have come in the last six games.
Add in the return of sophomore third baseman Jonathan India, who is batting .375 (9 for 24) with 2 homers, 6 runs and 6 RBI in seven games since rejoining the lineup following a right elbow injury.
Add the steady contributions of versatile junior Christian Hicks (.293, 4 HRs, 23 RBI) and it’s easy to see how the Gators were able to right the ship after an up-and-down start.
Sophomore Michael Byrne earned the win in that 2-1 victory Friday, but he remains stuck at 13 saves and tied for the single-season program record in that category while not receiving any chances over the weekend to grow that number.
Byrne (2-4) leads the Gators with a 1.82 ERA over 49 1/3 innings.
Ace Alex Faedo, who allowed 1 run on 3 hits and 4 walks in seven innings Friday, enters the week 7-1 with a 2.33 ERA and a terrific 101-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio.