OMAHA, Neb — You’ll have to excuse Kevin O’Sullivan if he doesn’t care what you think about his Florida Gators ballclub.
More than 300 teams started playing baseball back on fields with empty stands in the fall and there are only eight teams left playing baseball this week.
Shortly following the Gators Monday night win over Wake Forest to advance to O’Sullivan’s sixth College World Series, and third straight, questions began coming in questioning how Florida made it this far. How did a ragtag bunch of kids that don’t hit for power, don’t really hit for average and who have been hurt all year make it back to the Greatest Show on Dirt?
“The theme I keep hearing about things that we can’t do. And I’m sitting here and looking at our record and we’re 47-18. I mean, we do a lot of things well,” O’Sullivan said with a scoff.
The Gators are hitting just .262 as a team, 205th in the country. It’s the lowest batting average any of O’Sullivan’s 10 teams in Gainesville have hit for a season. Only Nelson Maldonado and Ryan Larson are hitting over .300 for the season. Larson, one of only two seniors on the team, has been around a while. He watched Taylor Gushue, Harrison Bader, Richie Martin, Pete Alonso and Buddy Reed come through Gainesville and tear it up at the plate. In four years he’s been to three College World Series and he’s the first to admit that this team isn’t like the last two that made it.
“I think this team has found a different way to win then those last two teams,” Larson told Gator Country. “I won’t say that this team isn’t deep and talented but we’ve had some guys at the front end of the rotation carry us. I think that’s apparent. Timely hitting when we need it. I think it’s a different way that we found to win this year and that makes it just that much more special.”
The Gators have been regulars in Omaha since 2010 — O’Sullivan’s third year. This year there’s star power, sure, but not like years past. This team doesn’t have Nolan Fontana, Austin Maddox, Brian Johnson or Brad Wilkerson. Heck, this team lost names like A.J. Puk, Dane Dunning, Logan Shore, Buddy Reed, Pete Alonso and Scott Moss just last offseason. Alex Faedo was a first round pick and the Gators did have three other players taken in the to seven rounds but this team is not like any of the other’s O’Sullivan has taken to Omaha.
That’s not a bad thing, necessarily.
“The first two years I feel like we swept a lot of teams, beat them up and we weren’t ready in case we fell behind,” junior catcher Mike Rivera said. “It’s been a lot of hard work, grinding stuff out even when things are going bad. I like our team. We’ve been through a lot.”
Rivera would know. The catcher broke his hamate bone — the third Gators to break his hamate bone this season — and missed six weeks. Freshmen Andrew Baker and Austin Langworthy both missed a month with hamate injuries of their own. Dalton Guthrie missed time with elbow soreness, as did third baseman Jonathan India.
“I think that shows the resilience of this team,” said Larson. “We’ve had so many starters come in and out of the lineup. The lineup really hasn’t been set all year, different guys at the top, different guys at the bottom. It has been tough on us.”
The Gators went more than 20 games into the season before they used a lineup twice. It led to a rocky start.
Florida was swept to by Auburn open SEC play. They were just 8-7 at the halfway point of the conference schedule. The power numbers weren’t there; guys were taking huge swings on 0-2 counts so O’Sullivan interjected himself into the at-bats. The Gators started stealing, calling hit-and-runs, bunting guys over, bunting for hits, you name it. Anything to get some life into the bats, which, at times, seemed comatose.
“We’re a different type of offense this year than we’ve maybe had in years past. We’re more aggressive on the base pads and hit and run a bit more, that type of thing,” O’Sullivan said at a press conference in Omaha. “We just found a way to get it done. It hasn’t been easy. Awfully proud of our team. It’s just a very difficult time — it’s just hard to get here. It’s just that simple.”
Florida found a way. They clawed back into the SEC race. Thanks to timely hitting and a 10-game win streak in the SEC they came into the final weekend with Kentucky on top of the SEC. Florida won two-of-three over the Wildcats to secure a SEC Championship. They made their way through the Regional with ease before tripping up against Bethune-Cookman. It was the first time Florida had lost to Bethune-Cookman in 32 games. The Gators were also pushed into an elimination game against Wake Forest in the Super Regional.
Do the Gators deserve to be in Omaha? Absolutely. They won the games they needed to. Are they as good as the Florida teams that have ventured to this tournament before? No. That does mean that they’re not burdened with the same pressure and expectations of teams past.
“I don’t think they feel pressure at all. I think they’re excited about the opportunity,” said O’Sullivan. “We don’t address that, this has got to be the team. I mean, we’re lucky to be here. I know we’ve been here 6 of our last 8 years, but it’s not easy. I do not want the players to feel pressure. There’s no pressure from me.”