The schedule has been daunting. It always is for Kevin O’Sullivan’s baseball teams. In the past with veteran ball clubs, O’Sullivan hasn’t had to worry about the identity of his team, trusting that older leaders would be able to steer the team through the gauntlet out of conference schedule he set up and through the SEC conference schedule.
Last season, with just two seniors, Florida struggled to find an identity and they paid the price. Florida posted a 29-30 record, the first sub .500 season under O’Sullivan and the Gators entered into this season without an identity as well.
A freshman and sophomore-laden team, Florida fell to 6-6 early on in the season before truly finding their identity. A blue collar, hard working team, the Gators describe themselves as gritty.
“I think we’re a gritty team that puts in the work every day at practice and it shows in the games,” freshman third baseman John Sternagel said. “I feel like we do a lot of the small things right. I noticed some schools maybe having trouble with bunting or moving a guy over or what not but we do.”
“We take pride in doing the small things right because we know our defense and our pitchers are outstanding. I think we’re a gritty team that battles and works hard.”
That approach has worked for them due in part to a pitching staff that has exceeded expectations beginning with freshman Friday night starter, Logan Shore. The freshman pitcher has compiled a 3-2 record and an impressive 1.67 ERA to earn his manager’s trust and the respect of his teammates. It’s not just Shore though. The pitching staff as a whole has been fantastic. Florida has started 12 different pitchers this season and six different pitchers have earned saves. The depth of the pitching staff has given O’Sullivan confidence to play matchups and use six, seven and even eight pitchers in a single game.
“We do have a lot of depth,” O’Sullivan said of his pitching staff. “We do have a lot of matchups, we’ve got quite a few left-handers that can do a nice job out of the bullpen and I think we’re just pitching to our strengths.”
Florida is tied for the most one-run victories in the country, a stat that wouldn’t be possible without the performance of the pitching staff as a whole and one that O’Sullivan pointed out but wouldn’t hang his hat on, knowing that in baseball all that luck can change in the blink of an eye.
“Baseball is a funny game, it can go one way or the other. Last year we seemed to lose a bunch of those one-run games, this year we seem to win a bunch of them. I think we’ve got 10 one-run wins this year, I think that’s tied for most in the country,” he said. “When you put yourself in those types of situations and you’re successful over a period of time I think it builds a lot of confidence in your team. But it’s a fragile sport, it can go the other way too.”
Put it all together, a freshman pitcher who’s pitching like anything but, a bullpen that has been lights out in tight situations and a blue collar mentality and you get the 2014 Gators who sit atop the standings in the SEC East a just one game behind Alabama for an outright conference lead.
That may sound great, but the league race is tight — like, down to the wire photo finish tight. Florida may sit on top of the East today but they’re only three games up on Missouri who is dead-last in the league.
“Any given weekend it could be turned upside down again. It’s tight,” said O’Sullivan. “I kind of figured it was going to be like this. It’s probably going to come down to the last series of the year, you just gotta take it one game at a time.”
That one game at a time mentality starts this Friday when the Gators will host Georgia. The Bulldogs are in third place in the SEC but a sweep would vault them ahead of Florida. The Gators are riding high on the tail-end of two comeback wins on the road against a tough South Carolina team and another midweek win against FGCU but O’Sullivan won’t let their egos inflate, there is still a long road to travel to Hoover, Alabama for the SEC tournament.
“I know I’m throwing out a lot of compliments here,” O’Sullivan said after praising his team’s performance last week. “I feel good about where we’re at but we still have a long way to go. Every game is different and this could be a heck of a race down to the finish in the SEC but I do like the direction we’re going.”