Opening Day is always a special occasion. For a few hours, every player and coach gets to dream big. Everybody is undefeated, and nobody can complain about playing time.
No. 1 Florida’s matchup with No. 21 Miami, however, will feel a little extra special and not just because it’s a huge intrastate rivalry in a brand-new stadium. COVID-19 robbed the Gators of a chance to compete for a national championship and properly say goodbye to McKethan Stadium in 2020. Most of the summer leagues were also canceled, meaning this will be the first game most of the Gators have played since being shutout by Florida State last March.
“The offseason was really long,” catcher Nathan Hickey said. “We’ve been wanting to play since the season last year got canceled. It’s really egging on everybody that we want to get the whole series started. I mean, it’s against Miami. Florida’s always good. Miami’s always good. So, it’s going to be a really good series, and we’ve been waiting for this for a while.”
While everyone involved is excited to get back into the ballpark this weekend, UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan cautioned fans not to read too much into anything that happens against Miami, whether good or bad. The Gators have 55 regular season games scheduled. There are a ton of things that can and probably will change between now and then. There will be ebbs and flows in all phases of the game.
“If you’re successful this weekend, there’s nothing you can take into next weekend,” O’Sullivan said. “We’re playing a really talented Samford team next weekend as well. And if we’re not successful, we don’t play well, that doesn’t mean that we can’t play better next weekend. There’s a lot of unknowns, there’s a lot of things that we’re going to have to figure out throughout this weekend and obviously with the midweeks against North Florida. But honestly, there’s teams that get off to a good start and don’t finish well, and there’s teams that get off to a slow start and finish well.”
Every matchup is its own unique, standalone entity, and this one promises to be a doozy. The Gators have won 15 of the last 18 games in the series, including a sweep in Coral Gables last season. The Hurricanes, of course, would love nothing more than to exact some revenge by ruining the public unveiling of Florida Ballpark.
They might have the squad to do it. They return six of their top seven hitters from 2020, including the players responsible for all 16 of their home runs.
“They’ve got a lot of lefties in the lineup, too,” UF pitcher Ben Specht said. “So, you’re going to need to use different pitches to keep guys off tempo, a changeup more often to lefties. They have kind of a lefty-heavy lineup, but like I said, a lot of guys from last year, so we kind of know what we’re going into since you’ve faced most of them last year.”
While all three of Miami’s weekend starters moved on, they’ve got another ace in the making in righty Daniel Federman. Federman was regarded as one of the best closers in the country last season. In 117 1/3 innings in his career, he’s posted a 2.15 earned run average with 43 walks, 125 strikeouts and 10 saves. Freshmen Alejandro Rosario and Victor Mederos will get the starts on Saturday and Sunday. They were both ranked among the best high school prospects in the country, and it was somewhat surprising that they made it to college.
O’Sullivan said he and his staff will give the players enough of a scouting report to be successful but will be cautious not to overdo it given the uncertainties that Miami’s pitching staff presents.
“We don’t know a lot about them,” O’Sullivan said. “We obviously have seen them in high school, seen them on video. It’s going to be a great experience for those two young pitchers, and obviously, they’re very talented. Miami is very fortunate to get them to school.
“A lot of times, as the game goes on, there’s a lot of in-game adjustments. I can recall many games that a certain pitcher might be fastball, changeup heavy and only use his breaking ball late in the count for strikeouts. And then you’re halfway through the game, and the guy’s been landing breaking balls left and right. He’s throwing 1-0 breaking balls for strikes, 2-0 breaking balls for strikes, which was not in the scouting report. And then you have to make an in-game adjustment. So, I think less is more this weekend.”
O’Sullivan is expecting there to be a little more nervousness and jitteriness than usual in the home dugout on Friday afternoon. This isn’t just the beginning of a new season. It’s the opening of a new stadium and a return to something close to normalcy following the stunning cancelation of the 2020 season.
“When they put their head on the pillow tonight and they wake up tomorrow, there’s going to be butterflies,” he said. “I don’t care if Tommy Mace has been here for four years. He’ll be amped up. Kirby McMullen, who’s been here five, he’ll be amped up. It’s just the way it is on opening night. As a coach, you try to push the right buttons, but sometimes when you don’t push the button at all, it might be the best answer. I’ve purposely tried not to give too much of the scouting report this weekend to them. We’ll talk a little bit about Miami today, talk about some of their players and some of their tendencies, but, at the end of the day, they just need to go out and play.”
Umpires have shouted “Play Ball!” to begin baseball games for more than 100 years. On Friday afternoon, it’ll mean just a little bit more than usual.