Periodically in-between innings at McKethan Park the faces of the Florida Gators (52-16/19-10 SEC) will pop on the screen. In one of these short videos designed to give a unique look at the players, while keeping fans in the park engaged, senior Ryan Larson pops up. The senior, with his trademark smile, notes that he puts his left sock on before his right sock every game. “I don’t know why,” Larson says on the Jumbotron in right center, “It just happens that way.”
In a game full of superstitious players, there’s also a magic number, 20. The players may not know it but surely Kevin O’Sullivan does. Twenty SEC wins, more often than not, will earn your team the SEC regular season championship. It’s not just a nice title that comes with rings after the season; the SEC regular season champion has earned a National Seed in the NCAA Tournament in all nine of O’Sullivan’s seasons at the helm at Florida.
20 wins in 30 tries is daunting. It’s averaging two wins every weekend in SEC play and the Gators dropped their first three league games of the season to Auburn. Now, you need 20 wins in 27 tries. After the first month of SEC play the Gators were just 6-6. Now you need 14 wins in 18 games. When the Gators fell to South Carolina on April 21, to fall to 9-8 in the SEC, it seemed unlikely they would hit that magic number.
“It’s been a very, very enjoyable ride. It’s been challenging — starting the league 0-3,” O’Sullivan said on Tuesday. “Almost half of our games have been one-run games, we’ve had a lot of great stories.”
There has been only one occasion in the last decade where a team won the SEC title without winning 20 games — 2010 LSU (19-11).
Winning a regular season SEC Title isn’t Florida’s ultimate goal but it is a goal they set before first pitch each season. Winning the regular season title also would almost certainly secure Florida as a National Seed, which would give them home field advantage for the NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals as they try to get back to Omaha for another chance at winning the last game of the season.
“It’s important. It’s important to a lot of people,” O’Sullivan said. “Obviously the ultimate goal is to win a National Championship but this is one of the goals that we set out the year to do, win a SEC Championship.”
Florida enters this weekend with a chance to reach that magic 20-win number. One win would do it and two wins would give them at least a share of the SEC Championship. How did a team that a month ago was 9-8 and third place in the SEC East get here?
An improbable run, to say the least, that’s what.
Florida won its third game over South Carolina and then three-straight on the road against Georgia. The Gators hosted Ole Miss the following weekend and ripped off three more conference wins to make the streak seven. Florida came back on the road against Alabama to make it eight in a row last Friday and then outscored the Crimson Tide 23-11 on Saturday and Sunday to finish off its third sweep in as many weekends. That, along with some help from Georgia who beat Kentucky twice and Mississippi State twice, propelled the Gators into first in the SEC outright.
“We just kind of keep going out there and playing. It really hasn’t been much of a change to us. We’re just winning games now. We’re playing looser I think. Really we didn’t have to make any changes.”
There is a lesson from last year. Florida went down to Baton Rouge to finish the 2016 regular season but dropped two-of-three to the Tigers and watched Mississippi State claim the regular season crown.
“Last year we were put into kind of the same situation and we didn’t really have the same weekend last year,” Friday night starter Alex Faedo said. “Now we know that it’s not going to be given to us and we’re going to have to win some games.”
At 6-6 and 9-8 this weekend seemed as if this final weekend would be a coronation for Kentucky, which is enjoying it’s best baseball season in years. Despite injuries, slumps and bad breaks along the way the Gators have a chance to finish the regular season where they expected to be before it began.
“You can’t ask for anything more,” O’Sullivan said. “We’re playing for a chance to win the SEC regular season and we’ve got a one-game lead with three to go at home.”