GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As the Florida baseball team returned home from its series sweep at Alabama last weekend, the team bus drove past the school’s Springs Residential Complex, the apartment-style residential hall directly across the street from McKethan Stadium. Senior OF Ryan Larson could only look out and reminisce.
“You know exactly which window was your room,” Larson said. “It’s pretty weird that was 4 years ago.”
Four years have indeed come and gone. Now, Florida’s two seniors — Larson and RHP Frank Rubio — are getting ready to play in their last regular-season series at McKethan Stadium. It’s a big series, too. No. 5 Florida (38-14, 19-8 SEC) against No. 6 Kentucky (37-16, 18-9 SEC) with the chance to win the program’s first SEC regular-season title since 2014 when Larson and Rubio were freshmen.
“Playing in our house, we have to take care of the series, first and foremost,” Rubio said. “We’ve got to come out with a win. We have to find a way somehow. … I think that would be a great way to cap off my career.”
Larson’s resurgence has been well-documented throughout the season.
After a solid sophomore year in which he batted .305 in 66 games with 25 RBI and 28 runs scored, Larson fell to the wayside as a junior. His average dipped to a minuscule .161, and coach Kevin O’Sullivan relegated Larson to mostly being defensive substitution late in ball games.
This year, though, Larson and his bat came back with something to prove. And he’s done it.
Heading into the Kentucky series, Larson is batting a team-best .336 batting average and .514 slugging clip. He already has career-best marks in doubles (8) and home runs (5).
In SEC play alone, his average jumps to .365.
“We knew what kind of player he was,” pitcher Alex Faedo said. “He just needed to keep getting out there and getting ABs and get out of the little funk he was in. … Every time he gets a hit, I’ll bet our dugout gets as excited as it does for anyone else because we’re so excited that he’s back on track.”
Larson’s response to that?
“I mean, what more can you say about somebody? I know I’ve had a lot of fun with these guys this year. Definitely friends for a lifetime. That’s really cool that they said that.”
And Larson isn’t planning on stopping yet. He’ll look back on his senior year when the Gators’ season is over.
“Hopefully I don’t get too emotional this weekend or anything like that,” Larson said, “ but yeah, last home series, so trying to go out with a regular [season] SEC championship. That would be pretty cool.”
As for Rubio, his playing time hasn’t been as hyped up this season.
Rubio, a walk-on relief pitcher who slowly earned more playing time each year he was with the program, has only thrown 20 innings in 16 appearances so far, numbers that are just a hair over his sophomore year totals (19 2/3 innings in 15 appearances). O’Sullivan initially pegged Rubio to be the top pitcher in a relatively young bullpen.
And then sophomore Michael Byrne emerged as the closer, tying the single-season school record for saves with at least three weeks left to play, and Junior Nick Horvath became the leader at the top of the bullpen. Both have a team-high 23 relief appearances.
Freshmen Garrett Milchin, Kirby McMullen, Tyler Dyson and Nate Brown have had their moments, too, leaving Rubio to battle with the youngsters for every inning he could get.
His highlight performance on the year was in Florida’s 2-1 midweek win against North Florida. Rubio tossed a career-long 4 scoreless innings with a career-high-tying 3 strikeouts to earn his only win of the season.
“Personally, I feel like every year I’ve grown a lot,” Rubio said. “I probably thought I would have grown even less this year because you grow throughout your 4 years, but I think I have grown a lot, just battling through different stuff, finding a spot in the bullpen — our bullpen has come along pretty well — and just making sure I’m contributing. That was the biggest thing over my four years that I’ve learned and put into use: just finding a way to contribute. … Just give us some outs, whether we’re up or down.”
And sometimes, his contributions are coming when the games aren’t being played.
He spends time with the freshman pitchers — namely Billy McKay, a fellow sidearm thrower who hasn’t pitched an inning this season — and makes sure they’re comfortable.
“Frank probably hasn’t pitched as much as he’s wanted to, but he’s never lost sight of the team,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s been a really good team player. He’s mentored those younger kids and he’s well-liked by everybody.”