The Florida Gators and Kevin O’Sullivan made a trip to Omaha, the fifth time in O’Sullivan’s tenure, but went 0-2 in the College World Series. The season won’t end with the Gators hoisting a National Championship trophy, but the 2016 Gator baseball team broke records in what was a memorable campaign.
Coastal Carolina and Arizona will decide who the National Champion will be on Wednesday night, but O’Sullivan and the Gators are already on to 2017. The coaching staff will be out recruiting soon, working on he 2017 and 2018 classes.
O’Sullivan took time to sit down with Gator Country to recap the 2016 season, discuss what changes he thinks the team needs to make it over the College World Series hump and which freshmen can come in and make an instant impact.
The expectations internally and externally were so high even before the season began. At any point that that pressure, or those expectations weigh down on the team?
Kevin O’Sullivan: No, I don’t think it did at all. It’s a tricky thing, there’s such a fine line between being successful and not. We’ve lost five one-run games in a row out in Omaha. There are some things in retrospect, some things that we can do better. The other factor is the game we play in the SEC is a little different than the one we play out in Omaha. The struggle that we have is that there’s a style of play that allows you to be successful in the league, that enables you to host Regionals and Super Regionals, and then the game in Omaha is a low scoring game. It’s our responsibility to somehow find that fine line, that style of play that can be successful in the SEC but also successful in Omaha. I think we need to do a better job of having some identity offensively. I think the roles of where guys hit in the order need to be more defined. We’ll be better offensively. I just think guys need to know their roles and stay with their roles in order for the lineup to work.
Is the challenge then creating that during the year, as you have so many players that you’re trying to get at bats? Last year you sort of juggled Ryan Larson, Danny Reyes, Nelson Maldonado and some other guys, how do you strike a balance there?
I think this is the bottom line; your leadoff guy should lead the team in on base percentage and runs scored. Your number two hitter should handle the bat, needs to be able to put the ball in play and move runners and not have a high strikeout total. Those types of things, your three and four hitters need to drive in runs. Your three-hole hitter is typically your best hitter and has a high on base. There are different characteristics of where everybody is in the order. I think the issue is that many players coming out of high school are always the three-hole hitter on their high school and travel team. To insert a guy into this spot in the lineup, or that spot in the lineup, there’s a learning curve and then that’s our responsibility as a staff to help define those roles more and help get those guys going to get the offense running more efficiently. It’s just that simple.
When you look at the way the NCAA Tournament has played out do you think it shows how hard it is to win a championship and how much parity there is in college baseball?
“There’s a lot of parity, but the margin for error is so small. We faced a guy the first night and we just hadn’t seen that type of pitcher the whole year. You talk about recruiting wise, if you want to have a better offense you need more good hitters. There are only so many scholarships to go around. Pitching and defense is obviously a priority but we get through the regular season and we’ve got all this pitching depth and, at the end of the day, when you get to Regionals, Super Regionals or Omaha, you don’t ever see your pitching depth. There’s a day off in-between when you get to Omaha. In reality, you might need more pitching depth in a three-game series than you do in the World Series, with the days off in-between. How do you adjust to that? Maybe you put the emphasis [in recruiting] on a couple more hitters to lengthen out your lineup a bit. Then you’re sacrificing two or three arms out of the pen. That’s a fine line, but that’s something we’re looking at.
What did this last junior class mean to the program?
They kind of got it started again. Well, that 2008 team (34-24, 17-13 SEC) was special because they started the Regional stretch. They were picked to finish 11th out of 12 teams and they found a way to be a two-seed in a Regional (Tallahassee Regional). Then the next year we ended up getting to host a Super Regional, a top eight National Seed. That team set a bar. We took it a step further. Then we went on that three-year run in 10, 11 and 12, going to the World Series. That was a special team. I think this junior class, after a difficult 2013 season, and I don’t want to take anything away from those guys because they battled hard and we got to a Regional (Bloomington, Indiana) and kept the streak going.
But last year’s junior class kind of got it going again. They won a SEC Championship as freshmen, obviously got to Omaha their sophomore year and won a SEC Tournament Championship and then back to Omaha again this year. They kind of got it going again. Now it’s the responsibility of these sophomores, now that they’re going to be juniors, to carry that on. Then the next wave is going to be the 2017-18 class and they’ll have to replicate what those guys did.
You have almost the whole infield coming back, starting with Mike Rivera behind the plate, Jonathan India at third, Dalton Guthrie at shortstop and Deacon Liput at second. Do you think moving JJ Schwarz to first would be a good lineup move? Could he make a permanent move to first base?
“No. I intend to use Mikey and JJ like we have — both of them catching. It would be nice to have JJ play some first, because I think he’s capable of doing that, on his off days from catching. Then that opens up the DH spot. We’ve got a freshman or two that are going to come in and battle over there at first, we’ve got [Jeremy] Vasquez that can play some first. We’ll find a guy over there. I’m not overly concerned about it, to be honest with you.
We’re not going to have Pete Alonso’s bat, let’s just be honest about it. We’ve got seven of the nine guys returning and we’ve got some freshmen that are going to play right away. We’ve got some talented bats that are going to come in and be ok and we have some arms coming in that will be impacts right away. We have a lot of two-way players in this class and it’s an interesting class in the sense that, I’m not sure how it will shake out, but I do really like this class. I think it’s going to be a very functional class. Like all the other classes, I think they’re going to make an impact.
I know you don’t want to single anyone out, or forget to mention someone, but is there one or two players in the recruiting class that you can foresee having the kind of impact Jonathan India and Deacon Liput had as freshmen?
Yeah. Looking at the board here I think two guys right now in the outfield, and they’re two-way players, are [Austin] Langworthy (OF/LHP) and [Andrew] Baker (OF/LHP). Those guys are going to be right in the middle of everything. I think Garrett Milchin (INF) is going to be a really, really good hitter and I think he’s going to be really good on the mound. You’re talking about three two-way guys right there and Langworthy and Baker and left handed. Milchin is a left-handed hitter and a right-handed thrower. Langworthy has a special bat. Baker has a chance to be a really good center fielder; I mean a really good center fielder and a leadoff type hitter. Nate Brown, a pitcher from Wisconsin, he’s going to pitch right away. He’s got a good arm, a really good arm. He’s very mature. Tyler Dyson (INF/RHP) has been up to 94 MPH and he’s a two-way guy as well. He’s just starting to figure some things out. We’ve got another guy, Austin Bodrato (RHP/INF), from New Jersey, another two-way guy. We recruited his as a pitcher and he got drafted by the Pirates as a third baseman. He can play outfield, he’s a 6.6 (60-yard dash) runner, he weighs 200 pounds and has a great body, left-handed hitter. Those guys, for sure, have a chance to make an impact right now. I don’t want to leave anybody out but those guys are going to be pretty good now.
Is there any area on the roster where you have concern right now? The bullpen?
I don’t know if concerned is the right word, obviously we’ve got to replace a lot of guys but concern isn’t going to do me any good. We’ve got some guys, they just have to go out, pitch, hit and perform. I think we’ve always pitched here and I expect us to pitch well next year. When you’re looking at the weekend rotation there are three potential first rounders (Alex Faedo, Jackson Kowar, Brady Singer). Nobody is going to look at our team and say, ‘boy, they don’t have enough pitching.’ We’ve got to figure some things out in the bullpen but we’ve also got three guys on the weekend that can pitch you into the seventh inning.