OMAHA, Neb. — Kevin O’Sullivan is the last of the Florida Gators still in TD Ameritrade. The players and the rest of his staff have retreated to the team bus that will take the Gators back to their hotel.
He’s not in a rush. The bus isn’t going to leave him at the stadium like he were Lane Kiffin.
For just the third time in 11 trips Florida is 2-0 in Omaha. O’Sullivan has gotten 14 innings from his starting pitchers including 20 strikeouts to just one earned run. He’s only had to use three pitchers out of the bullpen.
It’s a dream scenario but O’Sullivan, in his sixth trip to Omaha, is all too aware how quickly the dream can turn into a night terror.
“It’s worked out perfectly but we’re not finished. That’s the thing; you still have to make sure that we get a good start from Jackson (on Friday),” he told Gator Country. “Ideally if there’s another game on Saturday you’re going to be forced to bring back Alex. The best chance for us to win this thing is to keep Alex on a regular rotation. Jackson is going to have to give us a good start on Friday.”
Go back to May 20. Jackson Kowar threw 6.1 innings en route to his 10th win of the season. After the game I posed a question to him. “Do you remember the last time you lost a game?”
I’d done this last year. Logan Shore had just thrown a complete game against Vanderbilt to pick up his 28th career win, tied with Hudson Randall (2010-12) and Rob Bonanno (1991-94) for second-most all time. He humored the question and knew the exact date of his last loss. It was May 15th 2015, a 4-1 loss to Auburn that pushed his record to 6-6.
Kowar, like Shore, humored the question. Unlike Shore he didn’t have an answer.
“Uh, I’m not sure,” he said. “Maybe my senior season of high school.”
Kowar went 20-2 in his junior and senior seasons at Charlotte Christian School in North Carolina. He’s 15-0 in 20 starts at the University of Florida.
This time last year Kowar was a spectator. He watched from the dugout as the Gators went 0-2. He wanted to play but a health condition that caused his lung to collapse had sidelined him for the second half of the season and with how deep the Gators’ pitching staff was the trainers and coaches decided it wasn’t worth it to risk his health by throwing him out there.
This year, Kowar is one of the biggest reasons the Gators are in Omaha. He was tasked with starting the Gainesville Regional after O’Sullivan switched up his normal pitching rotation to lead with Kowar.
“If it wasn’t Jackson Kowar we would not do it,” O’Sullivan said before the Gators opened play in the NCAA Tournament against Marist.
Kowar earned the win over Marist. He threw 4.2 innings against Wake Forest but didn’t factor into the decision as the game was postponed due to rain and Wake Forest walked off in extra innings.
Kowar is quick to deflect questions about his record. Florida is scoring, on average, four more runs a game when Kowar is on the mound than when Alex Faedo or Brady Singer are on the bump.
“I think the win-loss record is a little deceiving,” he said. “We’ve scored a lot of runs in some games I didn’t pitch so well and I’ve had probably the best defense in the country behind me. Looking at the record, it’s mostly about the guys behind me.”
After a year and a half of waiting it’s Kowar’s time to get on the big stage. He’s been following Faedo and Singer all season long but this time will be different. Not only will it be his first crack at dealing with the pressure of pitching in Omaha, he has a tough act to follow.
Faedo set Florida up with seven shutout innings before Michael Byrne came in to close out his 17th game of the season to beat TCU. Not to be forgotten, Singer stepped up for Florida in its second game, holding a potent Louisville Cardinal offense to just one run over seven innings before Nick Horvath and Tyler Dyson closed out win number two.
The Gators’ pitching is set up perfectly. A win on Friday moves them to the championship series with Faedo and Singer ready to go in games one and two on full rest. A loss Friday would force the “if necessary” elimination game on Saturday. Florida would throw Faedo then, with their season on the line, and the rotation would be thrown out of whack.
To add it all up the first time Kowar steps on the rubber at TD Ameritrade he’s following two of the best pitching performances in school history, with a chance to go to the championship series on the line.