OMAHA, Neb. — The pressure of being the No.1 seed has been a daunting task for many a great team in Omaha at the College World Series. After spending most of 2017 atop the National Rankings the Gators sputtered down the stretch and were taken to the brink of elimination in both the Gainesville Regional and Super Regional before getting back to Omaha.
They’ll face elimination the rest of the way in Omaha after Texas Tech knocked the reigning National Champions off 6-3 on Sunday night. Florida is just the fourth defending National Champion to lose its opening game after making back to Omaha, joining Arizona (1980), Oregon State (2006) and South Carolina (2010).
“At the end of the day — I talked to the team at the end — there’s no rewind button here,” Florida manager Kevin O’Sullivan said after losing to Texas Tech. “We lost. So we’ve got to move forward.”
Hope, however, is not lost.
Since the NCAA Division I Baseball Championship stared in 1947 there have been 10 eventual National Champions lose their first game of the College World Series. It’s an uphill battle, for sure, but Florida running the gauntlet wouldn’t be unprecedented.
The Gators would first need to beat Texas (Tuesday, 3 p.m.). Then they would face the loser of Arkansas vs. Texas Tech (Thursday, 9.pm) and need to win that game before needing to beat the winner of that Arkansas/Texas Tech game twice (Friday and Saturday) to advance to the CWS Finals. That’s a four game winning streak; something Florida has done five times in 2018.
First the Gators will need to get over the shock that comes from losing a game that Brady Singer (23-9 in his career) started. Singer was 12-1 entering the game Sunday with his only loss coming on March 23, against Arkansas. Jackson Kowar took the mound the next day and allowed two runs over six innings of work for his fourth win of the season. The Florida offense exploded for 17 runs in a 17-2 win before taking the series and going on a season long nine-game winning streak.
“Brady’s our guy,” Kowar said. “He wins a lot. He’s won a lot in his career. He’s been picking us up all year on Fridays and carrying us through weekends. Now it’s my turn to try to pick us up and throw together a good start.”
Florida will turn to Kowar on Tuesday with the season in the balance. Kowar’s last outing was a gem. He threw seven innings against a dangerous Auburn Tigers lineup allowing just one run on three hits and struck out six but didn’t factor into the decision.
“I think this team has been experienced in elimination games and I know that it’s a long journey. We’re not going to look too far ahead,” Kowar said. “I’m going to take it like a normal game. Obviously there will be jitters because it’s Omaha but I think once I get out there it’s the same game. It’s just pitching.”
Complete list of National Champions that lost their first game:
2010 – South Carolina (L, Oklahoma 4-3)
2006 – Oregon State (L, Miami 11-1)
1998 – Southern California (L, LSU 12-10)
1980 – Arizona (L, St. Johns 6-1)
1979 – Cal State Fullerton (L, Mississippi State 6-1)
1976 – Arizona (L, Arizona State 7-6)
1970 – Southern California (L, Ohio 4-1)
1963 – Southern California (L, Texas 8-3)
1958 – Southern California (L, Holy Cross 3-0)
1950 – Texas (L, Rutgers 4-2)
The biggest obstacle when trying to claw your way through the loser’s bracket is pitching. Florida has a deep pitching staff with five non-starters that have logged at least 20 appearances this season. They would need to tap into every ounce of pitching that they have available but if any team in Omaha has the arms to make it out of the loser’s bracket and into the Final it’s Florida.
It all starts on Tuesday with Kowar. The junior that got the final out in the 2017 College World Series will be trying to do his part to get the Gators back to the last dance.