The Florida Gators baseball season is past the halfway point. It may seem like it’s flown by but for a struggling hitter watching fly balls turn into cans of corn, ground balls turn into double plays and his draft stock plummet like the Dow Jones in 2008, it can seem like purgatory.
JJ Schwarz entered what was surely to be his final season in Gainesville ready to make a splash. Everybody remembers the freshman that hit .332 with an incredible 18 home runs. Schwarz helped lead that Gators team to the College World Series that year and his “ceiling” seemed far to0 high to be seen or even imagined.
“He’s got unreal expectations on him,” sophomore pitcher Jackson Kowar said of Schwarz. “They’re almost impossible to live up to.
Schwarz went through some ups and downs as a sophomore but ended the season hitting .290 with 69 RBI and seven dingers. This season, however, was his money year. Schwarz tore the cover off the ball in the spring and was poised to put it all together for his junior season. He started off hot, 4-6 (.667) in the first two games with four RBI.
Then a slump.
Schwarz went just 1-14 (.071) over the next four games with four strikeouts.
That’s ok, it’s baseball. They say never get too high on your highs or too low on your lows. Baseball, especially trying to hit a baseball, has a way of humbling even the best Major League baseball players, but Schwarz’s slump continued.
After the first month of the season he was hitting just .200 and his 18 strikeouts outnumbers his 15 hits. The Gators would get swept on the road at Auburn that weekend to start SEC play. Schwarz was 1-10 with four strikeouts.
“It’s tough,” Schwarz said last Saturday of his season. “It’s been a rough season for myself and I’ve been frustrated and my attitude hasn’t been great.”
There were signs of life along the way. Schwarz was 4-10 with a home run against LSU. A home run against Florida State seemed promising but it was quickly followed by a 2-14 (.143), 8 strikeout weekend series on the road at Vanderbilt.
When Schwarz went 0-3, grounding into a double play and making an error in the field Thursday night against South Carolina Kevin O’Sullivan knew he had to do something.
“We just chatted briefly in my office and I told him I had confidence in him and he’s always hit, he’s gonna hit, it’s just been a rough stretch. It’s baseball,” O’Sullivan recalled of the one-on-one meeting the two had last Friday morning. “It’s amazing how one swing can kinda change your mood.”
Schwarz picked up two hits and scored a run in a loss Friday night. The series with South Carolina was pivotal for SEC standings and the Gators badly needed to win on Saturday to stay ahead of the Gamecocks and on the tail of Kentucky in the SEC East.
JJ walked twice and grounded out in his first three trips to the plate. The next time he came to the plate the bases were loaded and his team trailed 5-3. It was this kind of moment that Schwarz made a living off of during his freshman campaign.
“He’s just such a run producer for us,” Kowar said of Schwarz. “When he’s going well he just seems to be always driving in runs. If he’s hitting well he’s not just getting base hits, he’s driving balls, and he’s driving in runs.”
The weight of the entire season, the lazy fly balls, strikeouts, double plays and the grumpy fans in the stands begging O’Sullivan to give JJ a seat next to him followed him to the plate. He’s spent late nights and early mornings in the batting cages trying to fix a swing that might not need to be fixed. One thing after another had piled on through a .227 batting average as the eight or so steps to the plate seemed like a mile.
Step out of the box and take a breath.
Schwarz is a smart ball player, the son of a coach, he’s spent his entire life in dugouts and clubhouses. He knows the South Carolina pitcher Colie Bowers has just thrown five straight balls. He’s going to try to get one over the plate here and Schwarz needs to make the most of it.
The ball flies off his bat sending the left fielder back. There won’t be enough room for Carlos Cortes, who is left to do what everybody else in the stadium is doing, watch the ball land in the steel bleachers in left field and then turn to see Schwarz slap Lars Davis’ hand and pump a fist rounding first.
Then, something we haven’t seen in quite a while from No. 22.
Schwarz couldn’t contain his excitement. Rounding third he looked and shouted at his teammates who were jumping around outside of the dugout. Schwarz, as he always does, stepped on home with two feet brought his hands to hips lips and sent a kiss to the sky. He does this after every home run but Saturday it lingered.
Can you blame him?
“It was good to see a smile on his face again,” said O’Sullivan. “He’s been working awfully hard in the cages on his own and with the coaches. For him to come through in a situation like that not only does it make him feel good but it makes his teammates, his coaches and everyone around him feel good.”
Schwarz was mobbed by his teammates. They’ve been pulling for him all season. Of course they know how important JJ is to a potential deep NCAA Tournament run but they were happier for their friend, a guy who has tried to be a selfless teammate while going through the most difficult stretch of his career.
“He’s really stayed composed through tough situations,” said Kowar. “Seeing him hit a grand slam like that is really awesome because as teammates we’ve seen him working for it and waiting on a big moment like that.”
— Nick de la Torre (@NickdelaTorreGC) April 22, 2017
Florida would hold on to a 7-5 win Saturday to take the series. Schwarz spoke with the media after the game and was candid. Even though his teammates and coaches say he’s been great throughout the season he admitted to struggling internally. He said he hopes a moment like that can help to boost his self esteem a little bit. He credited the support system around him for helping him stand tall through the trials and tribulations of the season.
“I just had a lot of support staff around me, my friends, my family, all the coaches just keeping my spirits up, not let me beat myself up,” he said. “I’m really thankful for that and I’m glad I had that around me.”
Saturday everyone in Orange and Blue was smiling. Taking two of three from South Carolina was huge for the team, their standing in the SEC and an outside chance at hosting a Super Regional. More importantly, they smiled because the hard work one of their own put in all season long finally came through in a moment that couldn’t have been bigger and maybe it’s just the beginning of what’s to come.
“It was just such a good feeling and I was so glad we could get that win,” Schwarz said Saturday. “I hope that we take that momentum into the rest of the season, rest of the SEC schedule and hopefully get that SEC Championship.”