After finishing off a 40-win season the Florida Gators went on to win the SEC Tournament. It was a seventh SEC Tournament win in school history, yet, Florida didn’t have any players named to the All-SEC team.
It’s a testament to how Kevin O’Sullivan has built this baseball team. The Gators have been able to pick each other up when someone is slumping. Pitchers have thrown shutouts when bats have gone cold and the hitters have picked up the pitching staff when they’ve faltered. It’s a team atmosphere that starts in the clubhouse but carries itself both on and off the field.
Even with the team atmosphere that Florida has grown this season, there is still a singular player that many on the team look to — junior outfielder Harrison Bader.
“He’s one of our leaders,” All-SEC Freshman catcher Mike Rivera said. “Us younger guys look up to him and we see him struggling but still fighting and fighting and fighting. That gives us something to see that no matter how bad you’re playing, you’ve still got to play for your team.”
Bader got the Gators off to a quick start hitting 10-for-13 during Florida’s five game winning streak to start the season. Bader is second on the team in RBI (52) doubles (13), home runs (13), on base percentage (.398) and total bases (115). He moved over to left field after playing two years in center field and has a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage this season.
Bader missed three games due to an injury but he has hit in the middle of the lineup all season long and has been a catalyst for the offense as a whole. As Bader has gone, the team has gone.
Bader is hitting .320 (49-153) in wins this season and just .210 (12-57) in losses. When Bader went into a slump towards the end of the season, Florida began dropping games. Bader struggled particularly on the road in the SEC and saw his road batting average against SEC opponents drop to under .100 after an 0-8 start in the SEC Tournament. Bader was dropped to seventh in the batting order, lower than he can ever remember hitting, but a move he understood and took in stride.
“No. I guess it’s part of the game,” he said. “To be penciled in is the important part. Whether it’s first, ninth or 10th, I’ll be doing my job.”
Bader broke out of that slump with a huge 3-4 performance in a win over LSU last Saturday from the seven hole. It was the kind of game that Florida had been missing from their sparkplug.
“We need his bat. I was waiting for him to have one game where he kind of broke out,” O’Sullivan said. “I think he got three hits against LSU and then with Dalton being out (against Vanderbilt), I thought it was the right time to say, ‘Hey look. I’m going to move him into the leadoff spot.’ Maybe show him a little confidence on my end.”
Bader made O’Sullivan’s move look brilliant. Bader worked the count as the leadoff man in the SEC Tournament Championship game and launched a home run over the leftfield wall to give Florida a lead.
“The most important part of that is my team was always staying behind me, doing their thing,” Bader said. “Through their success, they picked me up. I was going really rough, but those are part of the games.”
Due to earning a National Seed, the Gators will play the rest of their games in the comfort of their home at McKethan Stadium. For all of his struggles on the road, Bader has been red hot at home this season. He hit .379 in the 25 games he played at The Mac and will likely return back to the middle of the lineup when Florida hosts FAMU on Friday night.
It’s been a long season full of ups and downs but the veteran outfielder and leader continues to take it all in stride.
“I think people feel a lot more comfortable at home. I’m just another small example of that to an extent. It’s important to keep your routine that I do every time. It’s a lot easier to do that at home than on the road, I guess. At the end of the day, it’s just baseball. It’s 90 feet.”