As Kevin O’Sullivan walked out to the mound in the eighth inning on Tuesday night — five outs away from securing the No. 3 national seed Florida baseball team’s first national championship — he knew the gamble he was about to make.
Fourth-seeded LSU had runners on the corners with one out. Florida had a one-run lead — a spot the team has been in more than enough times to know how to handle it this season.
O’Sullivan had a decision to make: Play it safe or potentially risk it all.
He went all-in.
Out came Michael Byrne, Florida’s closer with a school-record 19 saves and normally the Gators’ best option out of the bullpen.
In came Jackson Kowar, Florida’s No. 3 starter and the pitcher who would have started on Wednesday if the Tigers rallied and forced a deciding game.
O’Sullivan wasn’t waiting until Wednesday to win his first College World Series. He was ready to end it.
The move paid off. Kowar got out of the jam on a ground ball to first base that JJ Schwarz fired to Mike Rivera at home for the second out and then ended the threat with a fly out. His offense immediately responded with four runs for a much-needed cushion.
One inning later, Kowar found himself at the bottom of the dogpile as fireworks blasted in the background. The Gators finally did it. O’Sullivan finally did it. Final score: 6-1 Florida. The Florida Gators are finally leaving Omaha as national champions.
This moment — this celebration — is one O’Sullivan has yearned for since taking over as the Gators’ coach 10 years ago.
He made it to the College World Series five times before with far more talented teams but with nothing to show for it other than another trip to Omaha.
But O’Sullivan had said time and time again that he felt this team was special. It had its offensive struggles. No Florida player finished the season with a batting average above .300.
It did, however, have some of the best starting pitching O’Sullivan has ever assembled.
There’s Alex Faedo, the ace who was selected in the first round by the Detroit Tigers. All he did was give up just 1 run in 27 1/3 innings over the span of five NCAA Tournament games — a minuscule 0.33 ERA against some of the best teams college baseball has to offer.
There’s Brady Singer, the sophomore flamethrower who tossed 7 innings in the first game of the College World Series final on Monday that kept Florida’s pitching staff fresh for the rest of the series.
And there’s Kowar, the sophomore who carried the team for those final five outs to clinch the national title.
Throw in Byrne and the postseason rise of Tyler Dyson — along with the hitting that magically seemed to show up at the right moment — and the Gators had more than enough to scrape through the gritty wins.
That’s just how this team had to do it. They fought, clawed and battled all season.
They battled through the sluggish start, the one-run games and the injuries.
After starting 6-6 in SEC play, Florida won six straight conference series to earn a share of the SEC regular-season title with LSU.
They faced elimination not once, not twice, but three times during the NCAA Tournament and bounced back each time to keep their season alive.
And now, they have a national championship to show for it.
After the game, O’Sullivan hugged each of his players as the euphoria continued to seep in and a rare smile became a permanent fixture on his face. After that, he celebrated with his kids — 4-year-old Finn and 6-year-old Payton. The hard part is over.
Now, it’s time to celebrate.