The legacies are set. The pressure is off. There are no more questions left for this Florida baseball program to answer. Only a well-earned, long-awaited celebration to be had.
The Gators are College World Series champions, claiming the first national title in program history with a momentous 6-1 win over LSU on Tuesday night at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.
Florida (52-19) swept the best-of-3 finals series against the co-SEC champion Tigers (52-20) to end the wait after previously finishing as the national runner-up in 2005 and 2011. Overall, this was the program’s sixth trip to Omaha in the last eight years under coach Kevin O’Sullivan, the pressure mounting with each successive College World Series appearance. But no more.
“You never know how you’re going to feel when you get the last out in the College World Series, and I’m still kind of numb,” O’Sullivan said afterward. “But just overwhelmed with emotions for our players.”
Florida had flaws, endured slumps, battled injuries and faced elimination three times this NCAA postseason, but there was just something about these Gators. When they needed to win, they did. When the offense could only push across a couple or a few runs, the pitching made it count.
Time and time again.
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Tuesday night was no different. Fittingly, this final win didn’t come easily either — certainly not as smoothly as the final score would indicate.
Freshman pitcher Tyler Dyson walked off the mound with a 2-0 lead after yielding a leadoff infield single to Zach Watson in the seventh inning, and Josh Smith gave the Tigers a jolt with an RBI double to right-center off closer Michael Byrne. Jake Slaughter then moved him to third with no outs on a single through the left side.
And that’s when the game took its most dramatic turn.
Michael Papierski grounded to second base and Deacon Liput flipped to shortstop Dalton Guthrie for what looked like a game-tying groundout or double play as Smith crossed home plate. But Slaughter, who had entered the game in the bottom of the third as a defensive replacement at first base, was called for runner’s interference while sliding into Guthrie away from the bag.
The Gators had no chance of otherwise stopping the tying run from scoring, but that pivotal call from the umpire sent Smith back to third base. Nick Horvath then made a nice play in shallow center coming in on a scorching liner from Beau Jordan for the final out.
LSU wasn’t done, threatening again in the eighth. Kramer Robertson led off with a single, took second on a wild pitch and moved to third on a bunt single by Cole Freeman. Byrne struck out Antoine Duplantis before usual No. 3 starter Jackson Kowar, making his first relief appearance of the season, took over with one out and runners on first and third.
Greg Deichmann grounded to first baseman JJ Schwarz, who immediately threw home to nail Robertson at the plate for the second out. And Horvath hauled in another line drive to center, off the bat of Watson, to end that threat as well.
JJ Schwarz with a HUGE play!!
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 28, 2017
“That play probably saved us the game,” O’Sullivan said of Schwarz’s smooth throw to the plate.
Said Robertson: “We had our opportunities in the seventh and eighth inning there. Unfortunately, it was a weird play in the seventh inning that I’ve never seen, and in the eighth inning we got it going again. We just didn’t get it done.”
Kowar went 1 2/3 scoreless innings to close it out, and the Gators blew the game wide open with 4 runs in the bottom of the eighth to make sure there would be no more suspense.
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Posted by Florida Gators Insiders on Tuesday, June 27, 2017
Yet again, the Gators — who had won 4-3 in the series opener Monday night — found a way.
As if it wasn’t enough to get one ace-caliber outing after another from stud starters Alex Faedo and Brady Singer this postseason, Tuesday night solidified Dyson as the next star for the pitching-rich program.
Well, O’Sullivan actually made that proclamation Monday when he called Dyson “the next big one” for the Gators, and the hard-throwing righty backed that up on college baseball’s biggest stage.
He had fallen out of favor in the team’s bullpen earlier this season, pitching sparingly in April and May, but Dyson opened eyes with 5 scoreless innings in the finale of the Super Regionals against Wake Forest. On Tuesday night, making just his second start of the season, he held LSU to only that 1 run on 3 hits and 2 walks over 6 innings.
He left in a tense spot, but ultimately Dyson outdueled LSU’s all-time winningest pitcher as Jared Poche’ gave up just 2 unearned runs on 7 hits and a walk over 5 2/3 innings.
“I think this start went a little better than my first one,” said Dyson, who lasted only 1 2/3 innings in his other start, against Florida State in April. “But just being out there and helping these guys win and watching what the pitchers did this week, learning from that. And I didn’t get much sleep last night thinking about this game.”
He probably won’t get much Tuesday night either.
Dyson finishes the NCAA Tournament having given up just that 1 run over 14 1/3 innings, leaving an indelible stamp on Florida’s breakthrough national championship.
Along with Faedo, who gave up just 1 run over 27 1/3 innings in the NCAA Tournament with 44 strikeouts on the way to being named the College World Series Most Outstanding Player.
And Singer, who allowed 4 runs over 20 innings since the Super Regionals with 32 strikeouts.
And Byrne, who gave up 0 earned runs in 7 scoreless frames in Omaha.
One clutch performance after another.
“I think just having some of those veterans like Alex, Mike [Rivera] and JJ, three straight trips to Omaha is all they know. That’s all they’ve known here,” Kowar said. “Sometimes we appear pretty business-like, but [there’s] a lot of confidence I think getting some one-run wins early in the season and having Michael Byrne. That guy has been the hero this year for us. … And winning got contagious for us there.”
Pitcher Brady Singer celebrates his CWS win win a 1-on-1 interview with SEC Country
Posted by Florida Gators Insiders on Tuesday, June 27, 2017
Meanwhile, Florida was scrappy offensively Tuesday night while taking advantage of an uncharacteristically sloppy LSU defensive performance.
Tigers first baseman Nick Coomes picked up the first of the team’s 3 errors while failing to corral Liput’s leadoff grounder in the bottom of the first inning. Guthrie and Schwarz followed with singles, staking Florida to a 1-0 lead.
Horvath then started a two-out rally in the bottom of the second with a single through the left side. He took second on a throwing error by Coomes after a pickoff attempt and scored Florida’s second error-aided run when Liput followed with an RBI single up the middle.
Coomes was replaced in the field in the third inning by Slaughter, who would later add to the spate of miscues with his costly and potentially game-changing base-running blunder.
Florida loaded the bases that inning, but Poche’ kept it a 2-0 game at the time by striking out Ryan Larson and getting Horvath to pop out in the infield.
Ultimately, though, the Gators would leave no doubt about this one.
Horvath drew a hit by pitch with the bases loaded in that bottom of the eighth, Liput stroked a two-run single to center and Schwarz followed two batters later with an RBI sacrifice fly to break the game wide open.
Liput finished 2 for 5 with a run and 3 RBI, Guthrie was 2 for 5, Schwarz was 1 for 4 with 2 RBI, India finished 2 for 4 with a run and Horvath was 1 for 3 with 2 runs and an RBI.
From the aforementioned pitching to Schwarz’s second-half surge, Liput’s postseason resurgence and Guthrie’s incredible defense all season, the list of memorable individual stories for this team is long.
And in the end, the sum of those parts made Florida the best team in the country.
“I think something that made this team so special was … in each and every game we won [it] seemed like someone new stepped up,” Liput said. “I think what made our team so special was you never knew who that person was going to be. And throughout this season, it’s definitely been a long season, a hard season, but I think our team did a really good job of maintaining a level head and truly believing in ourselves, whether or not other people did. We have a lot of heart. We’re really close. We’re like a family. And I wouldn’t trade these guys for anything.”