Florida baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan could tell that all of the hype surrounding his team weighed on his players during the early stages of their season opener against No. 21 Miami on Friday night.
There are the external expectations that come with finishing the abbreviated 2020 season ranked No. 1 and returning nearly every key contributor. There’s the pressure that comes with being voted the unanimous No. 1 team in the country in the preseason. There’s the excitement that comes with playing a game for the first time in more than 11 months and opening up a new ballpark. All of it combined to put the Gators in a bad place mentally early in the game.
“You could almost sense, you know, you’re going into the season with all these expectations and everybody saying how good you are and all these things,” O’Sullivan said. “And then, all of a sudden, they say, ‘Play ball!’ and you could almost feel the tension a little bit in the dugout. You could kind of feel it, and then it just takes one guy to kind of get you going.”
Actually, it took one batter and some spectacular defensive plays to get them going on Friday night. The Gators shrugged off the sluggish start to defeat No. 21 Miami 7-5.
Catcher Nathan Hickey served as a jolt of energy twice. First, he took Hurricanes starter Daniel Federman deep to right field in the first inning. Hickey struck out five times on inside fastballs in last year’s series in Coral Gables, so he was sitting on that pitch. He got it and hit it just well enough to sneak it over the right field wall for the first hit, homer and run in Florida Ballpark’s history.
“I think that it kind of set the tone that we were there for business,” Hickey said. “It was a business trip. That’s kind of what I would say that we plan to do. We plan to come jump on teams early, just stomp them into the ground. That’s kind of what we try to do.”
However, the Gators were unable to capitalize on the momentum generated by Hickey’s first-inning longball. Federman struck out seven Gators in his first four innings of work. The Gators got doubles from Jordan Butler in the second inning and Kirby McMullen in the fourth but were unable to push them across.
Two batters after Jacob Young’s soft groundball squeaked through the wide-open ride side of the infield to give the Gators the 2-1 lead, Hickey came to the plate with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth inning. On a full count, he ripped a fastball into the right field corner. The ball landed extremely close to the foul line. The first-base umpire ruled it a fair ball, and two runs scored.
“To be honest, I hit it, and I just started running,” Hickey said. “Adrenaline just hit me, and I just started running. And I looked up, and I saw Jud [Fabian], and he was like 30 feet in front of me, and I was like, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ So, honestly, I wasn’t really paying attention if it was fair or foul. I was just running.”
Just like that, the Gators had the lead, and the floodgates opened. Baseball felt like baseball again to the boys in the pinstripes. They tacked on a run in the sixth inning on Kendrick Calilao’s RBI single and two more in the eighth on Kris Armstrong’s blast that may not have landed yet.
Similarly, it took working out of some early jams and some special defensive plays to get starting pitcher Tommy Mace going.
With one run in already in the top of the second, Miami had runners on second and third with one out. Tony Jenkins hit a fly ball to right field. Calilao caught the ball and fired toward the plate. Armstrong cut the ball off from his first base position and fired to third. Third baseman Kirby McMullen tagged the runner out. The home plate umpire ruled that the out had been recorded prior to the other runner touching home plate. Despite replays showing that the runner touched home microseconds before the tag was made, the call was upheld upon review.
“Everybody looks at the runs and hits up on the scoreboard, but that last column obviously is really important as well,” O’Sullivan said. “And sometimes those errors don’t hurt you, and sometimes they come at the worst times. There’s two sides of the game. We tell our players all the time, ‘You can’t just come into our program and be a DH. You’re going to have to play defense as well.’ Our coaches have worked really hard with our players, and we’ve got an older team, obviously, so they understand the expectations. So, yeah, I was really pleased with how they played defense tonight.”
The next inning didn’t get much easier for Mace. A single, a walk and a hit batter loaded the bases with one out. Mace got Yohandy Morales to line the ball to Calilao. Calilao raced in and made a shoestring grab. The runner on third expected the ball to drop in for a hit and didn’t tag up and try to score. Mace then worked back from a 3-0 count to strike Alex Toral out looking to end the threat. As he walked toward the dugout, Mace was very animated, pumping his fist and shouting like a mad man.
“I was excited to get that out for the team,” Mace said. “I put myself in that jam, but I don’t want to put that on our team and stuff like that. So, I’m excited to not let those runs score so we have a chance to go up big. That was a big momentum change for us as a team, and it was really good.”
He found the feel for his secondary pitches over his final two innings and retired the final eight batters he faced, with five strikeouts during that stretch.
“It’s really heart rate, and Sully preaches it, and I’ve preached it the four years I’ve been here,” he said of what allowed him to turn things around. “It’s just keeping your heart rate down, really locking into that glove and commanding all your pitches.”
The Gators’ season-opening win wasn’t pretty. Mace got himself into early trouble, and relievers Chase Centala and Ben Specht nearly blew a six-run lead in the ninth inning. Offensively, they struck out too much and were just 3-for-14 with runners in scoring position. There are plenty of things that they need to improve if they are to accomplish those lofty goals four months from now.
Still, a win is a win, and O’Sullivan hopes that they can put the first game jitters behind them for the rest of the weekend.
“Tonight was pretty much what I expected,” O’Sullivan said. “I expected us to be a little anxious early on, and then, hopefully, they kind of settle in, and then hopefully you start playing a little bit better, and we take that into tomorrow.”