For the first time since 2018, there will be postseason baseball in Gainesville this weekend. No. 15 overall seed Florida will host Miami, South Alabama and South Florida in a double-elimination regional, with the winner advancing to play the winner of the Austin Regional in a super regional next weekend.
To make things even bigger and more special, this will be the first time that Florida Ballpark will be open at 100 percent capacity after the Gators played in front of reduced-capacity crowds during the regular season.
“I’m really excited,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “I know the players are, too, for the first time to have full capacity. We’ve already had really good atmospheres, but I’m really looking forward to this weekend and having full capacity. It should be a lot of fun.”
Added third baseman/catcher Nathan Hickey: “There’s going to be a lot of fans there. It’s just going to bring the whole vibe, the whole atmosphere back to Gainesville baseball.”
Making this weekend a memorable one for their fans won’t be easy. The regional field consists of two red-hot conference tournament champions in South Alabama and South Florida and one of the most talented teams in the country in Miami.
The Gators (38-20, 17-13 SEC) will open the tournament by playing USF on Friday at noon. The Bulls (28-27, 14-14 American Athletic) are great on the mound, as their 3.82 team earned run average and .238 batting average against lead their league. Four of the 11 lowest ERAs in the American Athletic Conference among qualifying pitchers belong to Bulls.
Righty Jack Jasiak is expected to get the start against the Gators on Friday. He’s 6-7 with a 2.92 ERA, 86 strikeouts and a .208 batting average against.
USF is also deep in the bullpen, as two players tie for the team lead with four saves.
That kind of pitching depth makes them an extremely dangerous four-seed for the Gators. UF doesn’t have much pitching depth, which makes them prone to having one or two poor innings per game. If that happens again, the Gators could find themselves fighting an uphill battle against this pitching staff.
The Bulls struggle offensively and finished sixth in the eight team AAC in the regular season, but they averaged 6.6 runs per game in the conference tournament and won the league’s automatic bid.
“They’re playing right at the right time, and, you know, the season’s a long one,” O’Sullivan said. “There’s a lot of ups and downs for everybody, and the bottom line is they’re playing really well right now. We’re very familiar with their roster. They’ve got enough pitching. Offensively, they’re good. So, we’ve got our hands full.”
O’Sullivan is so concerned with USF that he’s going to throw his ace, Tommy Mace, against them. In the past, O’Sullivan has used his third starter against the weakest team in the regional and saved his two best arms for games against the tougher teams. He doesn’t feel comfortable taking that gamble this time around. Hunter Barco will start the second game, and Franco Aleman will start the third one.
“I don’t think there’s any guessing at this point,” he said. “I think that the field is really competitive. There’s a lot of parity, and I don’t think we have the opportunity to start moving things around.”
Should the Gators handle their business against the Bulls, a hotly anticipated rematch with Miami likely awaits them on Saturday. The Hurricanes took two out of three against the Gators in the opening series of the season to spoil the debut of Florida Ballpark. However, it took Aleman walking five batters and hitting another one in the ninth inning for Miami to win game two and Barco giving up eight runs in 3 1/3 innings for them to win game three.
Miami didn’t win those two games as much as Florida gave them away. From a fan’s perspective, this weekend is the perfect opportunity for the Gators to get redemption and end a hated rival’s season.
O’Sullivan, though, used a story from his past to caution his team against adopting that mindset. As the Gators made their first trip to the College World Series under O’Sullivan in 2010, O’Sullivan and his staff put together extensive scouting reports on the other seven teams in Omaha while also traveling for recruiting.
He now admits that trying to do all of that at once was a distraction that possibly kept his early teams from performing as well in Omaha as they were capable of. If you try to do a million things at once, you’ll probably end up doing all of them poorly.
“Our whole focus has got to be on South Florida tomorrow, and then whoever we play on Saturday, we’ll worry about that Saturday,” O’Sullivan said. “Looking ahead or putting too much time and effort into things that don’t matter, it can kind of put you in a bad spot. So, like I said, from those experiences, the bottom line is our whole focus as a staff, as a team is to stay focused on South Florida.”
Just because O’Sullivan doesn’t want to look ahead to Saturday doesn’t mean we can’t.
The Hurricanes (32-19, 20-15 ACC) rank eighth in their conference in batting average and fielding but are fourth in team ERA.
Carson Palmquist is as dominant as it gets out of the bullpen, posting a 1.74 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 41 1/3 innings. Andrew Walters and Spencer Bodanza both have ERAs below 2.10 in 17 and 18 appearances, respectively.
While Miami’s offensive numbers as a team aren’t great, the Del Castillo brothers can be game-changers. Outfielder Christian Del Castillo is third in the ACC with a .368 batting average, while catcher/outfielder Adrian Del Castillo hasn’t lived up to the hype with a .284 average but is still considered a potential first-round pick.
South Alabama is the biggest unknown in this regional, as UF hasn’t played them since 1991. The Jaguars (33-20, 15-9 Sun Belt) excel at run prevention, as they rank second in their conference with a 3.84 team ERA. They’re the best fielding team in this regional, as they defend at a .979 clip.
Two of their starting pitchers, Miles Smith and JoJo Booker, have ERAs below 3.70. Jase Dalton is their best reliever, as he’s posted a 1.54 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 35 innings. Jackson Boyd, Jeremy Lee and Tyler Perez all have ERAs below 3.70.
While the Jaguars are hitting only .244 as a team, left fielder Ethan Wilson is considered a potential first-round pick. The lefty is hitting .319 with eight home runs and 32 RBI. He’s committed just one error this season in 53 chances.
The Gators say they’ll be ready for them if they upset Miami on Friday.
“Even just to make the tournament, you have to be really good,” Mace said. “Everyone in this 64 has proven themselves to be an elite program, so you can’t take anybody lightly at all.”
While this weekend figures to be a challenging yet exciting one for the Gators, their coach likes where they’re at and expects them to play well.
“I feel really good about our team,” O’Sullivan said. “I really do, and I think we’re playing as good as we’ve been playing all year long, and I think most people would agree with that.”