HOOVER, Ala. — The story of this Florida baseball season still has a long way to go, or at least that’s the intention and hope.
But as the No. 1-ranked Gators prepare for their SEC Tournament opener Wednesday afternoon, there’s already been plenty of highlights for a team that started the spring with impossibly tough expectations.
Coming off the program’s first College World Series championship last year, thoughts of a potential repeat started forming in fans’ minds the minute they looked at the returning roster.
For his part, coach Kevin O’Sullivan immediately and continuously stated that this team is not the one that won the national championship. This was a new collective unto itself that would have to script its own narrative, create its own identity.
And that’s exactly what this team has done so far.
While the most important games lay ahead, not so much this week but in the upcoming NCAA Regionals and beyond, here’s a look back at the key story lines of the season so far:
1. Jonathan India sets the tone, rises up MLB draft boards
Junior third baseman Jonathan India entered this season a very good college player, the kind that hit between .274 and .303 in his first two years at Florida, totaled between 4 and 6 home runs, a bunch of doubles, made plays at the hot corner, etc.
India now enters the postseason as the newly-minted SEC Player of the Year, a Golden Spikes Award candidate and one of the most coveted names in the upcoming MLB Draft.
His SEC-leading .506 on-base percentage dwarfs his career numbers entering this spring (.361). Ditto his conference-leading .730 slugging percentage (up from .435) and his .365 batting average, which ranks third in the league (up from .289 through his first two years).
After combining for 10 homers through those first two seasons, India has hit 16 already this year with 40 RBI, 55 runs scored and a career-best .961 fielding percentage for good measure (good enough to make the SEC’s All-Defensive Team as well).
Simply put, he’s exceeded even the loftiest of expectations for what will be his final college season, made himself gobs of money while turning into a projected first-round draft pick (No. 6 in CBSSports’ mock draft, No. 6 by MLB.com, No. 8 by Sporting News, No. 11 by FanGraphs) and helped establish the Gators as the team to beat again this year.
2. Brady Singer delivers on immense expectations
Unlike India, all ace right-hander Brady Singer could do this spring was try to maintain the already sky-high expectations set for him.
Baseball America tabbed him as the projected No. 1 pick in the draft prior to the season, and the latest mock drafts still have him as a projected top-5 pick (No. 3 by Sporting News, No. 4 MLB.com, No. 5 FanGraphs and CBSSports.com).
Singer kept saying he wasn’t focused on the draft hype and that he’d keep a myopic focus on the task at hand. Sure enough, he’s delivered week after week for the Gators.
He was named the SEC Pitcher of the Year, finishing the regular season with a conference-best 10 wins and 2.25 ERA, while racking up 92 strikeouts against only 18 walks in 88 innings. Opponents hit just .186 against him this year, and he won a spotlight duel with fellow projected top draft pick — Auburn’s Casey Mize — with 61 scouts in attendance.
Singer was scratched from his start last week as a precaution for a mild hamstring issue and his availability for the SEC Tournament this week is not yet known. Expect the Gators to be careful with their junior ace, who will need to deliver big in the postseason again if this team is to make it back to Omaha.
3. Welcome Wil Dalton
A program the caliber of Florida’s never quite knows what it’s going to get from a junior college transfer until it happens.
In the case of Wil Dalton, who spent one season at Columbia State Community College in Tennessee, the Gators felt they needed an extra outfielder as they projected their 2018 roster and liked his potential.
But surely nobody could have known he’d be tied for third in the SEC in home runs (16) and fifth in RBI (team-high 50) in his Florida debut.
The identity this Gators team created has come largely through its top-to-bottom, power-packed lineup, and Dalton’s emergence as a legitimate middle-of-the-order SEC slugger has been a huge part of that.
4. Power surge galore
It’s not just India, or Dalton or any other singular breakout offensive season.
Florida hit 53 home runs all of last season through its run to the College World Series championship. While there are things that team did better than this one, the 2018 Gators have proven to be a far more potent lineup from top to bottom.
They already have 80 homers to this point, and that power has come from just about everywhere.
Along with India and Dalton, senior captain JJ Schwarz has been his usual productive self with 12 homers so far and Nelson Maldonado has been steady as expected with 8 homers, but power surge up the middle has been the most surprising.
Senior centerfielder Nick Horvath, who entered the spring with 2 career homers and a .173 career batting average, has 6 HRs (and a .260 average), junior shortstop Deacon Liput has crushed 7 HRs (after hitting 6 over the last two seasons combined) and junior second baseman Blake Reese has 4 (after hitting 0 over 80 at-bats the last two years).
Horvath has been perhaps the biggest surprise of all. He went from 17 hits, 11 RBIs and a .255 career slugging percentage over the last two seasons to 46 hits, 31 RBI and a .435 slugging percentage all while continuing to play exceptional defense in center.
5. The search for a third starter
If there is one question this team has yet to answer, it’s at the back end of the rotation.
Sophomore Tyler Dyson was expected to build on his postseason heroics of 2017 and excel as Florida’s No. 3 starter, but he’s struggled to the tune of a 4.47 ERA over 50⅓ innings while losing that spot. He’s now working his way through a shoulder issue as well.
Freshman Jack Leftwich (4-4, 4.80 ERA) has been up and down in his opportunities, and fellow freshman Tommy Mace showed some positive signs last weekend in his first SEC start (1 run and 3 hits allowed in 6⅓ innings at Mississippi State), but he still has a 4.93 ERA for the season (45⅓ innings).
With Singer and fellow projected first-round pick Jackson Kowar (9-3, 3.01), the Gators have a strong 1-2 punch on the mound, but they’ll need more than that to go all the way this spring.
That said, at this time last year, nobody knew Dyson would emerge as the missing link for the 2017 championship team. Florida will have to hope either he can return to health and return to form in time to make an impact, or that one of those freshmen can take a similar postseason leap.