After having the most successful run in Florida baseball history – including a 2012 team that undoubtedly had the most talent on any single roster that Florida has ever put together – Florida predictably struggled this season on their way to a 29-28 (14-16 SEC) record in 2013.
Heading into the season we knew that this Florida team was going to look much different than they had the previous three seasons. With a roster loaded with freshmen and sophomores, the Gators season went up and down before a crash landing that started with a sweep in Baton Rouge.
However, like a boxer who barely makes it through a standing eight count, the Gators find themselves still in the fight and with a punchers chance and in the NCAA Tournament.
And as Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan told reporters earlier in the week, the Gators start the post season with a clean slate.
“What you’ve done in the past doesn’t matter at this point.” O’Sullivan said. “It’s a new season now.”
To their credit, the team has bought into what their head coach is telling them and they’re confidence hasn’t wavered despite their late season struggles.
“I definitely think Indiana and all the other teams aren’t very happy to see our names in the regional.” Friday night starter Jonathan Crawford said. “I definitely think we deserve to be in there just because our strength of schedule was one of the top in the country. We build a lot of off momentum. If we get that momentum people are not going to like us.”
Crawford will need every bit of that confidence on the mound Friday night. It was just a year ago that Crawford toed the mound and gave the Gators’ their most memorable post season moment, throwing a no-hitter against Bethune Cookman in Florida’s opening game. On that day, Crawford faced the minimum 27 batters and was just a walk away from a perfect game. Crawford will need to give the Gators another strong outing if they want to advance out of the Bloomington regional.
Indiana Hoosiers (43-14, 17-7 Big Ten)
The Big Ten champion Hoosiers host their first regional in school history. The Hoosiers ventured down to Gainesville earlier in the season and left with two wins and the series. To be fair, this Florida team was still feeling itself out at that time and has figured things out since losing the series to Indiana.
Indiana is a well-rounded team with a collective .305 team batting average and a staff ERA of 2.57. Three hitters the Gators should worry about are DH Scott Donley, catcher Kyle Schwarber and third baseman Dustin Demouth who are all hitting above .350 on the year with a combined 25 homeruns and 136 RBI between them.
The Hoosiers also have three pitchers – including two starters – who have a sub 2.00 ERA on the year.
The main question with Indiana is how they will respond to hosting their first ever regional. On paper, Indiana has the best team in the region but games are not played on paper.
Austin Peay State Governors (45-13, 22-7 Ohio Valley Conference)
The hottest team in college baseball, the Governors come into the Bloomington regional winners in 19 of their last 20 games, including a 15-game winning streak – the longest in the country.
This is the third straight year that the Governors have made the NCAA Tournament – a school record – and the No. 2 seed in the regional is the highest any team has been seeded in the NCAA Tournament in school history.
The Governors walk softly and carry a big stick. A very big stick.
As a team they are hitting .315 on the season and their corner infielders (1B Craig Massoni, 3B Jordan Hankins) have a combined 27 homeruns on the season. The same total as the entire Florida Gators roster put together.
Florida Gators (29-28, 14-16 SEC)
It was an up and down season for the Gators and unlike the rest of the teams in the regional, the Gators don’t have a powerful lineup that can dig them out of holes. Instead, Florida relies on solid pitching and defense to carry the team.
Florida’s .975 fielding percentage is the best in the regional.
Florida will count on a strong start from Crawford on Friday and most likely Poyner in game two. They will depend on Ryan Harris and Johnny Magliozzi out of the bullpen and need some hitter to get hot if they want to advance to face the winner of the Tallahassee regional.
Valparaiso Crusaders (31-26, 13-11 Horizon League)
In 2012 the Crusaders ended a 44-season NCAA Tournament drought by winning the Horizon League Conference Tournament. They double dipped in 2013 and made it back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
The Crusaders don’t excel at the plate or on the mound but have shown the ability to pick each other up throughout the season. They’re a scrappy ball club. When the hitters struggled, the pitching staff would pick up the slack and vice versa.
Tanner Vavra leads the team with a .333 batting average, 42 runs scored and 11 stolen bases.
Three questions for the Gators
1) Will Jonathan Crawford show up against Austin Peay on Friday night?
As mentioned before, Crawford’s no-no against Bethune Cookman last season kick started Florida’s run to Omaha. Does Crawford have another magical night in that right arm and can he give Florida the momentum he mentioned earlier in the week?
2) Do the Gators have enough hitting to make it through this regional?
The Gators .268 team batting average is the worst of all the teams in their regional. Florida relies on pitching and defense but they’re going to have to be able to cross the plate if they want to advance to the Super Regionals.
3) Who will pitch in game two?
The regional is a double elimination format so the Gators will play at minimum two games. Bobby Poyner would be my educated guess to be the game two starter and if the Gators face Indiana in their second game this could play in Florida’s favor, as Poyner did not pitch when Indiana came down to Gainesville so the Hoosiers are not familiar with his stuff.
Indiana head coach Tracy Smith on hosting the regional.
“It’s very exciting. It’s the very first time any of us have been in this type of situation before. It’s also perfect timing since we have this new field (Indiana recently replaced their grass with turf) and a successful year so far. It’s perfect timing and very exciting.
Austin Peay head coach Tyler Rogers on what has fueled his team’s 15-game winning streak.
“We just gelled really well together. Our bullpen has been really strong. We have found ways to win and bear down and getting one more run than the other team. We have just been playing really well together.”
Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan on how his young team has developed and matured this season.
“Team wise, I think our pitching staff has been pretty good all year long. I think offensively, we have been young, but I feel like we’ve improved. We have a much better feel of our identity as a team offensively and we’ve gotten healthy too.” O’Sullivan continued. “I think we’ve just continued to improve this season offensively, but I think pitching and defense has been pretty good all year long.
Valparaiso head coach Tracy Woodson on his team’s approach to Indiana’s powerful lineup.
“We know this team can hit. We have to try and limit the number of runs, and we have to manufacture runs ourselves. We went to the (Horizon League) tournament; we beat the three best arms in our league that we faced. We beat three number one pitchers, so we fell confident that we can score runs.