GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Last season, Florida baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan was highly optimistic that the encouraging signs he had seen in the fall and the preseason from his hitters would lead to a strong start at the plate for the Gators.
That didn’t exactly come to fruition.
So when O’Sullivan talked recently about how sophomore first baseman Keenan Bell had led the team in home runs during this past fall and how junior second baseman Blake Reese was looking really good, well, there was a natural wait-and-see reflex.
Three games later, yeah, it seems those two are indeed legitimate breakout candidates for the Gators this spring.
No. 1 Florida completed a thorough three-game sweep of Siena with a 19-2 win Sunday at McKethan Stadium, as Bell went 2-for-3 with 4 RBIs and 2 runs (including his second home run in as many days) and Reese went 2-for-4 with 4 RBIs and 2 runs.
“Both worked awfully hard. They’re arguably two of our hardest workers. Obviously from a coaching standpoint it’s good to see those guys have success early on,” O’Sullivan said. “Keenan’s a legitimate power bat in the middle of the order there, and Blake’s just waited his turn. He’s turned into a really, really, really good player.”
The story Sunday figured to be sophomore right-hander Tyler Dyson, who is himself an obvious breakout candidate this year after his postseason heroics during the Gators’ run to the 2017 College World Series championship.
And Dyson was solid, allowing 1 run on 5 hits and a walk with 3 strikeouts over 6 innings for the win.
The Gators’ offense has seized the spotlight to start the season, though.
Florida outscored Siena, 36-5, over the season-opening series with contributions up and down the lineup.
Nelson Maldonado finished the weekend 6-for-10 with 4 RBIs, JJ Schwarz collected 5 hits and 3 RBIs over the three games, Nick Horvath went 5-for-8 with 4 runs over the first two games, Jonathan India tallied 4 hits with a homer and 5 RBIs and newcomer Wil Dalton also had 4 hits and a homer with 4 RBIs in the series.
But Bell and Reese earned the headline Sunday.
Bell put Florida on the scoreboard with a 2-run double in the bottom of the first inning and scored on Dalton’s sacrifice fly as the Gators plated 3 in the first frame.
Bell then clobbered a 2-run home to right center in the fifth, and Reese added an RBI single to make it 7-1 as the game was already in hand.
— Nick de la Torre (@NickdelaTorreGC) February 18, 2018
“It’s nice, obviously. I had a really good fall, really good spring, figured some things out, becoming more consistent,” Bell said. “I’ve always had pop. It’s just being able to be more consistent with it, and I think I’m reaping the benefits of my hard work for sure.”
The Gators kept scoring … and scoring from there, adding 9 runs in the sixth inning, including a bases-clearing 3-run double from Reese.
— Ryan Young (@RyanYoungSEC) February 18, 2018
For perspective, Bell has already matched his 2017 total of 2 home runs (in 92 at-bats) while Reese’s 7-for-12 weekend at the plate has him more than a third of the way to his 19 career hits entering the season.
Bell is getting a chance to be the Gators’ primary starting first baseman this year while Reese is capitalizing on the opportunity opened by at second base by incumbent starter Deacon Liput’s continued absence for an undisclosed off-the-field matter.
“I’m just trying to take it at-bat by at-bat. I’m not going to necessarily sustain [this pace]. This has been a good weekend for me, and sometimes you see the ball well and it looks bigger than it really is. So it’s a good sign for me,” Reese said.
“I definitely feel like, in my own opinion, I’ve worked my tail off to get where I’m at. When you put in the work, sometimes it takes guys longer than other guys. I do think it’s a testament to hard work and patience. It’s been a long two years for me, and I knew what I signed up for when I came here. There’s always going to be competition.”
O’Sullivan hasn’t offered a timeline for when Liput will be cleared to play again, but if Reese keeps it up he’s going to earn a place in the lineup one way or another.
The switch-hitter also played some outfield last season for the Gators, so he provides some valuable versatility as well.
“I think realistically when you don’t have to look over your shoulder as much and you know you’re going to be in the lineup every day, maybe that takes some of the pressure off a little bit. But he’s a good player,” O’Sullivan said of Reese. “… Just a really good baseball player. He can play multiple positions, we can move him around a little bit, he can run, he’s equally as good from sides of the plate, so he’s a really good player.”
To round out the offensive barrage Sunday, India was 1-for-3 with 3 RBIs and 2 runs, Dalton was 2-for-4 with 2 RBIs and 2 runs, freshman Shane Shifflett went 2-for-2 with an RBI off the bench and freshmen Jordan Butler and junior Jonah Girand also had an RBI each as late-game replacements.
“There’s been so much written about how our offense wasn’t very good last year,” O’Sullivan said. “You know, it’s a long season. Obviously we swung the bats well this weekend, but we’re going to see arms that are probably better than this as we move on so we’ll see. It’s a long season, but I was pleased.”