Trying to manage a college baseball team is hard. Kevin O’Sullivan, who is entering his tenth season as the head coach of the Florida Gators baseball team, knows this all too well.
Division I baseball teams are allowed to have 27 scholarship players on the roster. Unlike football, where schools are afforded 25 scholarships or women’s sports, where every student-athlete is afforded a full scholarship, baseball coaches have to divide up 11.7 scholarships among their roster.
“It’s a huge juggling act. It’s not easy,” O’Sullivan said of the task. “You obviously have to over recruit to a certain degree because of the draft of guys that you’re losing on your team and guys that are incoming, but I’ve been doing it for so long that you kind of know that threshold and where you kind of don’t want to go over. But it is very hard. It’s one thing to be 11.7, but to land on the 27 is not easy. You can always move some scholarship money around, but it’s very, very hard to move bodies.”
That means O’Sullivan and the rest of his coaching staff rely on walk-ons to help fill out their roster, something Florida has had success with in the past.
“One year we had four walk-ons that were drafted and signed professionally,” he recalled. “So I don’t look at our walk-ons any differently than I do our scholarship players, and often times sometimes those guys end up being our best players and starters.”
Still, the task is daunting and just getting into the University of Florida is a challenge. Frank Rubio was a stellar student at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Ft. Lauderdale, where he was a member of the National Honor Society and Spanish Honor Society. He was named a Second Team All-American as a senior when he finished the year with an 8-3 record, 1.73 ERA and 84 strikeouts in 61 innings. He could have gone somewhere on a scholarship but he wanted to try and walk on at Florida.
Rubio graduated St. Thomas in 2013 and enrolled at Florida. When he arrived at his first practice he was joined on the mound by fellow freshmen Logan Shore, A.J. Puk, Dane Dunning, Scott Moss, Shaun Anderson and Kirby Snead. It wasn’t going to be easy to find a role in that group.
“Looking back, there’s a couple guys now that I see who are in similar situations. I think maybe mine was a little tougher,” Rubio recalled. “I came in with I think 15 recruits. Definitely tough. You really have to worry about yourself. You can’t get caught up in a kid, you know a guy like A.J. Puk, coming in with all the hype throwing like 95. You’re throwing like 87 from the right side. You really have to worry about yourself. You can’t get caught up in everybody else.”
Rubio didn’t get discouraged. Instead, he committed to learning as much as he possibly could by watching the other pitchers throw bullpens and working as hard as he could to improve his own game.
“I just tried to really learn from everybody,” he said. “Just sitting in the bullpen next to Sully and watching guys throw and taking in as much as I can.”
With that came goals, albeit meager goals to begin with. Rubio wanted to contribute whatever he could as a freshman. Rubio made just three appearances as a freshman, with his first coming against the Miami Hurricanes, not far from where he grew up. He allowed two runs over eight innings or work and struck out five.
His innings may not have shown it, but Rubio really turned O’Sullivan’s head that first year.
“He told me ‘Hey. You’re teammates like you. You work hard. Keep doing your thing.’ That was pretty much his message, almost verbatim,” Rubio recalled of one of his first meetings with O’Sullivan. “It wasn’t so much anything about expectations. It was do your thing and see where you’ll end up.”
Rubio’s goal was to double his innings the next season. He did just that throwing 19.2 innings over 15 appearances. Then, his junior season he continued to follow his plan. His innings nearly doubled (from 19.2 to 34.1) and he struck out a career-high 21 batters. Rubio’s 23-appearances were tied for third best on the team.
“It’s been exactly what I planned on doing,” he said. “I came in here thinking ‘Hey. I might not get a chance to play significant time for a couple of years.’ But my goal was to earn more and more every year. I think I’ve almost doubled it every year. That was my goal coming in.”
This season Rubio is the veteran in a bullpen that will feature more freshmen than any other class. His 43 appearances leads the team and that experience is invaluable. That 2013 pitching class featured three first rounders but Rubio is the last one standing in Gainesville and the path he set out on, daunting three years ago, has come full circle. He’s poised to be the Gators’ closer in 2017, as well as lead the team in appearances out of the bullpen.
“I tell you what, he’s going to be very, very valuable for us this year. I see him probably leading our team in appearances,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s so much improved, and he’s one of the only two seniors we have on our roster.
“I look forward to running him out there the first weekend and he’ll be pitching in some very, very valuable, very stressful innings. I think when the game’s on the line or we need to get an out toward the latter part of the game, I think right now he’s probably our best option.”
Rubio could be content with just that. He’s already beaten the odds and is being looked to lead the bullpen as a walk-on. That isn’t in his makeup though. He’ll continue pushing himself and, in turn, pushing the younger players around him.
“I try to keep some lofty goals,” he said. “Last year’s staff was pretty talented, I still would like to at least meet with what last year’s staff did. That is probably lofty. We don’t have as much hype as last year’s staff, but I think the numbers we set, maybe not the strikeouts, but as far as the success of the pitching staff as a whole is a good benchmark.”
From walk-on to workhorse, this is exactly the way Rubio envisioned his career would go at the University of Florida even before he stepped foot on campus. He pictured this ending even before anybody even knew he would be on the 2013 roster.
“I was thinking about it earlier today. I was laughing to myself and saying ‘Wow, it’s gone by quick’,” he said. “I definitely didn’t expect it to go by this quick. But, it’s been good and I’m thankful for it.”