The No. 13 national seed Gators will begin their postseason run in the Gainesville Regional on Friday night when they take on Central Michigan at 6:30 at Condron Ballpark.
Reading that last sentence might’ve caused you to laugh about five weeks ago. On April 24, the Gators got swept by No. 1 Tennessee to fall to 6-12 in SEC play. The starting rotation was a jumbled mess following Hunter Barco’s season-ending elbow injury. The bullpen seemingly couldn’t hold onto a lead of any size, and the offense disappeared for large stretches of games.
Forget hosting a regional. It felt like their chances of just making a regional somewhere were slipping away.
Then, of course, the Gators got really hot. Like, hotter than the 90 degrees that it’s supposed to be for first pitch on Friday night. They’ve won 16 of their last 21 games, including four wins last week at the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Alabama, that catapulted them into hosting position.
The Gators are pleased with how far they’ve come over the last month.
“It was great because, going into the week, we knew we had to play really good in order to host,” left fielder Wyatt Langford said. “We were on the plane, actually, getting ready to leave when we found out we were going to host, and we were all kind of excited.”
Continuing this magical ride beyond this weekend will be far from easy, however. They’ve been assigned one of the two or three toughest regional fields.
The two-seed, Oklahoma, has won 10 of their last 13 games and pounded Texas to win the Big 12 Tournament title. They’ll likely play with a little extra fire this weekend after the selection committee declined to award them a home regional.
No. 3 seed Liberty took two out of three games from UF back in February, and Central Michigan (42-17, 30-7 MAC) is the only four-seed in this year’s tournament that has won 40 games. The Chippewas play a loose, high-energy style of baseball that is conducive to pulling off an upset, and they should have a lot of confidence after they made it to the finals of the South Bend Regional in 2021.
Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said that one of the keys to his team’s turnaround has been their ability to focus on the task at hand. When they were 6-12 in league play, they didn’t talk about having to win x-number of games to host a regional or having to sweep a certain series. They just focused on playing their best on that given day and trusted that the results would follow.
That mental resolve will be tested again this weekend. Central Michigan isn’t a typical No. 4 seed. The Gators can’t afford to start thinking about exacting revenge on Liberty or battling Oklahoma in a high-profile game.
“They’ve got a real No. 1 pitcher,” O’Sullivan said. “They’ve got three guys that have double-digit stolen bases. They defend good. They’re confident. Their lineup is balanced, left-handers, right-handers. Shoot, they won 42 games this year. Yeah, they’re talented.”
That “real No. 1 pitcher” that O’Sullivan referenced is 6-foot-5 sophomore righty Andrew Taylor. His fastball velocity sits in the mid-to-upper 90s, and he was named an All-American as a freshman in 2021 by several publications.
He is 8-3 with a 3.19 ERA this season. He’s struck out 117 batters in 79 innings while walking just 26. He’ll start on Friday against UF.
Even during their recent hot streak, the Gators have struggled at times against quality pitching, and Taylor will certainly provide some stiff competition for them.
“He’s going to elevate his fastball,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve got to push his fastball down. He gets lots of swings and misses on his fastball. I think that’s the biggest thing with him. He’s got some deception in his delivery.”
To show you how serious he is about not looking too far ahead, O’Sullivan is going to start ace Brandon Sproat against them. Oftentimes, the host school will use their third starter against the weakest team in the regional and save their big guns for the winners’ bracket games that will decide the regional title. O’Sullivan doesn’t feel like they have the luxury of doing that.
The Gators shouldn’t have anything to worry about if Sproat continues to pitch like he has over the past month. Since Barco went down, Sproat is 4-0 with a 1.65 ERA. In his most recent start, he carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning against South Carolina in the SEC Tournament and ended up giving up just one run in 8 1/3 innings.
“His fastball command has improved, and, quite honestly, he’s been able to throw his off-speed pitches for strikes, and he’s been able to minimize the damage,” O’Sullivan said. “The big innings have not been an issue. He’s taken over the No. 1 role, and everybody needs a No. 1 at this point of the season. He’s certainly done that.”
Sproat has always had the upper-90s fastball and the sharp breaking ball that appeal to scouts, but consistently locating them had been an issue until this recent stretch. On April 16, his ERA was a season-high 4.91, and he had only pitched into the seventh inning once in nine starts. His ERA is now down to 3.59, and he’s pitched into the seventh inning in three consecutive starts.
Sproat said that his improvement throughout the season has been as much mental as it has physical.
“Just attacking every pitch and not worrying about the results,” he said. “Whatever happens happens. Just go out there and attack.
“It was something that I was working on throughout the whole year, and it’s something that finally clicked with me. It’s been working for me, so I’ve been sticking by that.”
Central Michigan is hitting .297 as a team and averaging just shy of eight runs per game. They’ve got six regulars who are hitting .295 or better, and they’re walking 5.8 times per game on average. They’re going to be smart at the plate while still being aggressive on mistake pitches over the plate.
“They’re very, very scrappy at the plate,” Sproat said. “They’re going to do anything to get on base. They’re not going to strike out much. So, you’ve got to make some pitches. They’re not going to swing at any big misses, so just go out there and have a plan.”
Offensively, the Gators will hope that Langford can keep doing what he’s done all year long. He leads the Gators in all three triple crown categories with a .363 batting average, an SEC-best 23 home runs and 60 RBI.
Since moving into the leadoff spot 21 games ago, he is batting .420 with 10 homers. Not coincidentally, his move into the top spot in the order was the same time that the Gators’ hot streak began as a team.
“I haven’t changed much,” Langford said. “I’m just looking for my pitch to hit, and I think being moved into the leadoff spot, I’m getting that more often than I was.”
All of the ingredients seem to be coming together for the Gators to make a deep postseason run. They’ve got three dependable starting pitchers (and maybe even four if Timmy Manning pitches like he did in the SEC Tournament), an effective bullpen with a variety of looks and an offense that can score runs in bunches.
The Gators aren’t ready to start making hotel reservations in Omaha just yet, though. They’ve got business to take of first, starting with the Chippewas on Friday night.
“You can’t take the performances in Hoover into this weekend,” O’Sullivan said. “I think the biggest thing for us right now as a team is stay focused on one game at a time. I spoke to the team about that [on Thursday]. You can’t worry about Saturday. You can’t worry about Sunday. You can’t be worried about who you’re going to be matched up with in the [Super Regionals]. Literally, you have to worry about Central Michigan, and that’s it.”