HOOVER, Ala. — Under different circumstances, there might not be much at stake for the Florida baseball team this week at the SEC Tournament.
The Gators already won the conference’s regular-season title, have been ranked No. 1 nationally for most of the season and have their sights set on trying to win a second straight College World Series championship.
Under different circumstances, this might be nothing more than a tune-up week before the NCAA postseason.
But mired in a 4-game losing streak — the longest of the season — and coming off their first SEC series loss of the year, the Gators simply can’t treat it that way as they open tournament play Wednesday afternoon against LSU at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.
“From a team standpoint, we need to come back to our winning streak, you know, get our team camaraderie back and play well as a team,” third baseman Jonathan India said Tuesday at the team hotel. “We need that momentum going into regionals, so we’re actually going to take this really serious this week and play well.”
The top-seeded Gators (41-15) will play LSU (34-23) for the first time since sweeping the Tigers in the 2017 College World Series finals. LSU advanced with a win Tuesday night over Mississippi State, which had contributed to Florida’s recent frustrations with a three-game sweep in Starkville, Miss., last week.
Coach Kevin O’Sullivan gave the Gators an off day Sunday as they traveled straight from Starkville to Hoover to settle in for the week.
The sweep didn’t cost the No. 1 Gators in the standings or the national rankings, as they remained atop the D1Baseball.com and Baseball America polls this week, but it resonated nonetheless.
“We had kind of already accomplished one of our goals,” pitcher Brady Singer said of the regular-season title. “But Sully, no, he was mad. We all wanted to go in there and win games. We didn’t want to go in there and lose three, but the mood is definitely different. That smacked us in the face.”
Florida had won each of its first nine SEC series this spring and hadn’t lost more than two straight games before last week, but Singer makes a fair point.
The Gators had clinched at least a share of the conference’s regular-season title the previous weekend and would claim the title outright nonetheless last Friday with an Arkansas loss.
The other point worth noting is that Singer didn’t pitch at all in that series. O’Sullivan mixed up his weekend rotation, giving freshman Tommy Mace his first SEC start on Thursday, presumably to keep Singer and Jackson Kowar on their normal schedules.
Mace ended up with his best performance of the year (1 run and 3 hits allowed in 6⅓ innings), but the bullpen blew the game for a 6-3 loss.
Singer then was scratched from his start Friday as a precaution for a mild hamstring issue, and freshman Jack Leftwich struggled in his place as the Gators lost 12-4.
And Kowar ended up with his worst start of the year in the finale Saturday as part of a 13-6 loss.
“I think it was just honestly baseball. Sometimes games don’t go your way,” Singer said. “I feel like a lot of those games didn’t go our way and we just got beat. That’s kind of how it happened.”
Said India: “We did sit down and talk about it a little bit, but we also did move on. We had to talk because we didn’t get swept at all this year, and coming off a series like that, you know, they just played better than us. Mississippi State is a great team and they just hit really well and we didn’t really play to their level. So we’ve got to come back this week and play well.”
Mace will get the start Wednesday for the Gators, looking to build on his breakout performance. The highly touted right-hander, who was selected in the 12th round of the 2017 MLB Draft by the Cincinnati Reds but instead chose Florida, has a 4.93 ERA over 16 relief appearances and 4 starts.
But he showed his potential last week and the Gators will hope he proves he’s ready to be a real factor down the stretch.
In general, they’ll hope they can show as a team that they’re collectively ready for what’s ahead after hitting a speed bump last week.
“We had a great year so far,” India said. “We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing and get back on track and keep pushing.”
NOTES: Singer, the SEC Pitcher of the Year, remains day-to-day with the hamstring issue and his status for the tournament is uncertain, though he said he’s getting better every day. “I’m not sure. Honestly, day by day. Like I said, it is really getting better,” he said.
India shared his thoughts on becoming just the third player in program history to win the SEC Player of the Year award, joining two-time winner Matt LaPorta (2005, 2007) and Mike Zunino (2011).
“It’s an honor to win that. It’s very hard to win it, and there was plenty of other players that were well-deserving of this award as well,” he said. “So I’m just honored from the SEC and the people that voted for me to win, and I’m happy.”