The 2021 Gators baseball team entered the season with perhaps the highest expectations of any squad in school history.
They returned almost every key contributor from a team that finished the truncated 2020 season with a 16-1 record. They were ranked the preseason No. 1 team by every publication. They were expected to hang the second national championship in program history or at least come close to it.
Boy do those days feel like a distant memory.
The No. 15 national seed Gators went out with a whimper on Saturday afternoon. South Alabama defeated them 19-1 to end their season. It marked the first time since 2014 that UF went 0-2 in the regional round.
It represented the largest margin of defeat in UF’s NCAA Tournament history, and they also tied the record for most runs given up. The 18-run margin of defeat tied for the second worst in program history in any game.
The Jaguars (34-21, 15-9 Sun Belt) piled up 21 hits. They notched 12 hits and 12 RBI with two outs. Four players recorded three or more hits, led by Kaleb DeLaTorre’s 4-for-5 game. Santi Montiel drove in five runs, while Cameron Tissue plated four.
“It’s just one of those days, and, unfortunately, it’s the last game of the year for us,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “It’s something you’ve got to live with, but the sun will come up tomorrow, and we’ve got to move forward. I know the players are probably disappointed right now, obviously, because this is the last chance they’ll have for this group to be together.
“But we have a lot to be proud of. We hosted another regional, and even though there were some ups and downs during the season, we hung in there, and I thought we played our best baseball in the second half of the year, and we improved as the season went on. It’s just a sad way to end it this way.”
UF starter Hunter Barco only recorded one out. He walked Montiel to open the bottom of the first and plunked Michael Sandle with one out. Hunter Stokes singled up the middle to open the scoring, and DeLaTorre followed with an RBI single to right.
Barco threw a wild pitch to move DeLaTorre into scoring position. Sensing the game slipping away early, O’Sullivan brought in closer Jack Leftwich. Leftwich escaped the inning without allowing any further damage.
Leftwich then tossed two more innings and gave up three hits. He struck out four batters and walked one but didn’t give up a run.
The Gators (38-22, 17-13 SEC) took advantage of Leftwich’s strong outing to creep back into the game in the third. Josh Rivera and Colby Halter laced back-to-back singles to start the inning. Mac Guscette scored Rivera with a sacrifice fly to left.
To keep everybody’s pitch count low and preserve as many bullpen arms as possible for the remainder of the weekend, O’Sullivan removed Leftwich in favor of Franco Aleman to start the fourth.
Aleman pitched a 1-2-3 inning in the fourth, but the wheels started falling off in the fifth. Sandle reached on a throwing error by Nathan Hickey at third to lead off the inning. DeLaTorre walked, and Tissue doubled to right center to score both runs and make it 4-1.
Aleman walked Hunter Donaldson to lead off the sixth, and Sandle reached on an infield single with two outs.
Then the inning just kept going and going and going and going and going. The next nine batters notched hits to plate 10 runs in the inning. Aleman was charged with nine runs, seven earned, on seven hits in 2 2/3 innings. Brandon Sproat gave up the final four runs of the inning, with the final three runs going on his record.
All nine Jaguars batters picked up a hit in the inning, with Sandle notching two.
“Credit their hitters; we didn’t walk anybody, we didn’t make any errors that inning,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s just one of those crazy things about this game that makes it so good.”
South Alabama scored five more runs in the seventh on home runs by DeLaTorre, Andrew Bates and Montiel, with Montiel’s being a three-run shot off of Ryan Cabarcas that finished the scoring.
To make things even more unsufferable, the clouds opened up, and the game was delayed for one hour and 50 minutes in the bottom of the seventh. It was a fitting end to a frustrating season.
“We were a very close team,” Jacob Young said before choking up as his answer went on. “It’s hard, but we all grew really close, and it was a fun run. We of course wish it ended differently, but you’ll never forget the memories and the friendships.
“To end it like that, knowing that we didn’t play like we can and we have, is definitely a tough feeling. Losing sucks.”
Jaguars starter Miles Smith gave up just five hits and struck out five batters in six innings to pick up the win.
The Gators now enter an offseason that figures to be filled with way more questions than answers. Pitchers Tommy Mace and Leftwich will almost certainly sign professional contracts, as will home run leader Jud Fabian. A boatload of other players will have the option to go pro, including the top-two hitters in the lineup in Young and Hickey.
The 2021 team didn’t come close to living up to the preseason hype. The underwhelming campaign was punctuated by an embarrassing exit in their home regional.