GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan joked that the SEC had good forecasting ability to schedule the No. 5 Gators against No. 6 Kentucky on the final weekend of the regular season.
Florida enters the three-games series with a one-game lead in the conference standings over the Wildcats — one of the best stories in the SEC this season— and LSU. The Kentucky-Florida series begins Thursday night at McKethan Stadium.
“It’s amazing, you play 30 games and it always comes down to the last weekend [and] the last game. It’s just amazing how that works,” O’Sullivan said.
What’s particularly amazing is how Florida (38-14, 19-8 SEC) got to this point, transforming its season over the past five weeks or so to put itself in the lead for the program’s first SEC regular-season title since 2014.
The Gators endured significant injuries and saw most of their key hitters slump for stretches, all the while having unlikely stars emerge. Their starting pitching was strong, as expected, but their bullpen became almost lights out thanks to a closer who came from off the radar to tie the program saves record.
All leading to this point.
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“It’s been a very, very enjoyable ride,” O’Sullivan said earlier this week. ” … We’ve had a lot of great stories. I’ve been bringing these guys’ names up recently because they don’t get talked about a lot, but Mark Kolozsvary, Christian Hicks playing all four infield positions, Nelson Maldonado, Ryan Larson, Michael Byrne with 13 saves. Guys that we probably didn’t talk about a whole lot before the season started, I think they’re as big a part of why we’re at where we’re at. Then obviously the ‘bigger name’ people that we have. So it’s been an enjoyable season for me. … We’ve had some really, really great stories within our team.”
Larson, one of just two seniors on the team, hit a lowly .161 last season while producing just 2 extra-base hits in 87 at-bats. When this spring began, he was a bench option with no clear path to regular playing time. Now, he’s hitting leadoff and leading the Gators with a .336 batting average along with 5 home runs, 8 doubles, a triple and 22 RBIs.
Hicks, meanwhile, entered this season with even less of a track record of offensive success. He was a .135 career hitter in 74 at-bats over two seasons. Who could have predicted he would start at first base, fill in at shortstop when starter Dalton Guthrie was injured and then take over at third base when injury knocked Jonathan India out of the lineup? Hicks was steady all season, batting .293 with 4 homers and 23 RBIs.
Maldonado (.329, 5 HRs, 24 RBIs) was as steady as any hitter for the Gators. Kolozsvary (.266-2-20) filled in admirably when starting catcher Mike Rivera broke the hamate bone in his right hand. JJ Schwarz shook off a slow start to become the middle-of-the-lineup force the Gators needed, batting .417 with 5 homers and 19 RBIs over the past 14 games. And on and on.
“I’ve said this all along and I don’t want to sound like ‘I told you so,’ but I said we were going to hit. I just didn’t know when,” O’Sullivan said. “It was frustrating for me as well, as it was probably for everybody that’s been following us or coming out to see us play or watching us play on TV. It has been a little bit frustrating, but I never lost faith that we [were] going to hit offensively. So we’re just kind of hitting our stride.”
In the lineup, around the field and on the mound, for that matter.
Rivera is expected to return as a designated hitter this weekend before easing back into his catching duties. Injured infielders healed and returned to normal roles. And the pitching has been there all season. Alex Faedo (7-1, 2.33 ERA and 101 strikeouts in 85 innings) leads the SEC in strikeouts. Brady Singer (6-3, 2.58 ERA) is having a breakout season and Jackson Kowar (9-0, 3.92 ERA) leads the SEC in wins.
In addition to that star-studded weekend rotation, Byrne (1.82 ERA, 13 saves) morphed from sophomore midweek starter when the season began to shutdown closer while helping to solidify the bullpen along with freshman Garrett Milchin and junior lefty Nick Horvath.
“We’ve always felt like we had the team to do it, but we just weren’t playing well early and now we’re doing what we should be doing,” Guthrie said.
After starting 0-3 and later 6-6 in the SEC, the Gators are now in the driver’s seat for the regular-season title.
“You look at that first weekend at Auburn, I was just thinking about it, we got swept and now you look and we’re in a great position to win the SEC,” reliever Frank Rubio said. “I don’t think anybody coming out of that weekend thought that was a possibility, but that just goes to show you the type of team we have this year.”
Like O’Sullivan said, the Gators had nice individual stories emerge through the season while becoming quite a story collectively.
The Gators’ goals are fixed on the College World Series and getting another shot at a breakthrough in Omaha. As one of the hottest teams in the country, that goal is looking more legitimate with each passing week.
In the meantime, they’d like to pick up this SEC regular-season title and keep their momentum.
“I think this weekend I would anticipate being like a postseason atmosphere. I would hope anyways,” O’Sullivan said. “I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”