GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Despite making 95 starts for Florida over his first three years with the program, senior outfielder Ryan Larson wasn’t penciled in as a regular when this season began.
A frustrating 2016 campaign had rendered him a bench player heading into his final season with the Gators, and it would be a month into the schedule before he re-emerged as a consistent cog in the lineup.
And actually, consistent might be an understatement.
Larson is not only playing the best baseball of his collegiate career right now, but he’s been the most impactful hitter on the entire team as No. 12 Florida looks to be building some momentum at a pivotal juncture of the season. He leads the Gators with a .349 batting average overall and is hitting an absurd .500 (17-of-34) over the last 8 games heading into the start of their series with South Carolina on Thursday night.
“It’s kind of a weird feeling. Everything seems down the middle when you’re hitting and it’s a really good feeling. I’m trying not to lose that feeling as of right now,” Larson said Wednesday.
It’s not that Larson’s production has totally come out of nowhere. The outfielder from Orlando hit .305 in 51 starts and 66 games as a sophomore two years ago.
But after he bottomed out at .161 last season in 20 starts and 59 games overall with just 2 extra-base hits in 87 at-bats, well, it wasn’t expected that he’d be sparking the Gators’ best offensive stretch of the season.
“I’m not surprised by anything any of our players do. We recruited him for a reason,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “It’s just that there’s been some other guys that may have been ahead of him a little bit his first 3 years, but he’s been a valuable contributor for us for 3 years. Now he’s getting a chance to play every day and he’s being able to show what we can do and he’s having some really good at-bats. I just hope he continues because it would be a heck of a story.”
O’Sullivan likened Larson’s senior-year surge to that of former Gators infielder Josh Tobias, who led the team in batting (.355) as a senior in 2015 while turning himself into a 10th-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Phillies. Tobias had hit .252 as a freshman, .260 as a sophomore and .305 as a junior before his breakout final season.
“We don’t have the luxury of having a lot of seniors in our program because of the draft and guys moving on to the professional level. I just hope he continues to do what he’s doing because he’s worked awfully hard and has waited his turn,” O’Sullivan said of Larson. “It’s kind of like the Josh Tobias story. He kind of hung in there and had an unbelievable senior year.”
Unbelievable is an appropriate adjective.
After entering this season with 1 career home run, 7 doubles and 1 triple in 173 games and 338 at-bats, the formerly light-hitting Larson has 3 homers, 6 doubles and a triple all since March 11. After posting a dismal .184 slugging percentage as a junior and entering the season with a .296 career mark in that category, he now leads the team with a .554 slugging percentage and has recently found himself batting cleanup for the Gators.
Larson admits he can’t ever remember hitting 4th before in his life, but he won’t say he’s surprised by his recent hot streak.
“I think I know I can do it and try to expect good things to happen now,” he said.
Mike Bradley, his baseball coach at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, saw that same resiliency years ago as Larson rose to the occasion in some of the biggest moments for his team. And catching up with him this summer before Larson headed back to campus, Bradley saw something else in his former player — a change from previous years.
“The pressure sometimes can get to anybody. He’s such a competitor, he’s fierce competitor, one of the most competitive guys I’ve had the opportunity to coach. He always wants to be the best, and I think when he struggled he let it eat at him a little bit,” Bradley said. “… I saw him right before he left in the summer for fall camp and he was just happy-go-lucky. I think he was just going into his senior year with no expectations, (thinking) ‘I’m just going to work my (butt) off and let the chips fall where they fall.’ And I think he’s kept that perspective.”
After making 3 starts through the first 17 games and making an impression in that third one with a 2-homer performance against Seton Hall, Larson has started in left field every game since March 18. Meanwhile, his bat caught fire at the start of the Tennessee series earlier this month.
He went 4-for-5 with 2 runs and 2 RBIs in that series opener and 3-for-5 the next day. Last week there was a 2-for-5 effort at Florida State, a 5-for-5 performance in the series opener at Vanderbilt and a 2-for-3 showing in that series finale. His batting average was up to .367 before a mortal 0-for-4 line Tuesday night against North Florida.
“What a great story,” Bradley, his high school coach, said. “From being down in the dumps and (then getting) lost in the shuffle. … but give him one opportunity and boom, he capitalizes. Give him another opportunity, boom, he capitalizes. And all of a sudden it’s, ‘OK, we’ve got to give it to him.'”
O’Sullivan said the best way to describe Larson is that he’s well respected within the team as a senior leader with a consistent work ethic.
Florida ace pitcher Alex Faedo touched on that too, adding that seeing the outfielder have this kind of success has given a jolt to the whole team.
“I remember two years ago he was one of the hottest hitters the whole year. He hit over .300 and when we face him he’s no easy out. I think he just needed to get back, simplify things a little bit, he did his job and it’s awesome to see him his senior year carrying us a little bit and putting us on his back,” Faedo said. “… Every time he gets a hit it gives the dugout a little bit more energy than just another guy.”
Larson doesn’t want to think too much about it all, though.
After that 0-for-4 on Tuesday, he just wants to get back in the batter’s box Thursday night against the Gamecocks and stick with the approach that’s carried him and the Gators these last couple weeks.
Larson doesn’t have any theories for his recent tear — he’s just trying to stay in the moment with it.
“I’m not too sure. I’m not sure I could put my finger on it. I wish I could. It just seems right now everything’s going really well,” he said.