Some things in sports are a given. Duke and Kentucky will make the NCAA Tournament in men’s basketball. The New England Patriots will make the playoffs. The UF football team will have one of the best secondaries in the country. The Gators baseball team will win a ton of games by relying primarily on dominant pitching and defense and just squeaking out enough timely hits.
What a wacky five months it’s been in the sports world. The No. 1 Gators racked up 22 runs and 38 hits in their season-opening series against No. 21 Miami. And yet, they lost the series, as Miami won Sunday’s rubber game 8-6. It was Miami’s first series victory over Florida since 2014.
Lefty starter Hunter Barco turned in by far the worst start of his brief college career. In 3 1/3 innings, he surrendered six earned runs on eight hits with three walks and two hit batters. With a couple of unearned runs thrown into the mix, the Gators fell behind 8-0 in the fourth inning. The bullpen held things down the rest of the way and the offense came to life late, but it was too late.
The pitching staff experienced similar struggles in the first two games of the series. Relievers Chase Centala and Ben Specht nearly blew a six-run lead in the ninth inning on Friday. Franco Aleman couldn’t preserve a three-run lead in the ninth on Saturday.
The most disturbing part of the performance to coach Kevin O’Sullivan are the number of free passes they handed out. It’s one thing for an opposing offense to time up your pitches and hit them hard. It’s another thing to give them runs without them having to take the bat off of their shoulders more than a couple of times per inning. UF walked 25 batters and hit five more over the series.
On Sunday, they walked or plunked the leadoff batter in four of the first five innings. Miami scored in four of those innings. They didn’t walk or hit the leadoff batter in the final four innings, and the Hurricanes didn’t score. It’s a very simple correlation to figure out. O’Sullivan was surprised by his team’s inability to throw it over the plate.
“We had the least amount of walks per nine in the fall and the spring combined that we’ve ever had here before,” O’Sullivan said. “And then this weekend, we walked more than I ever anticipated and hit by [pitches]. There were multiple times this weekend when we got an out on the first or the second pitch of the inning and then we walked the next hitter. We could never get into a rhythm. Surprisingly enough, we played good defense behind them, but I don’t have any answers.”
O’Sullivan believes the pitching staff’s issues began with their starters. While Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich combined to only give up three earned runs in 10 innings, they let their pitch counts get escalated. That forced the bullpen to have to cover more innings.
The starters’ inefficiencies created a trickle-down effect. Because Mace only got through five innings in game one, Christian Scott was unable to finish the game. That forced O’Sullivan to bring in Centala to start the ninth. Of course, his poor performance forced Specht and Aleman to pitch in a game that they shouldn’t have. Because they had to pitch again on Saturday, they were unable to pitch on Sunday, which hurt the bullpen’s depth.
“There’s no excuses to be made,” O’Sullivan said. “That’s just the way it is. We just did not pitch economically. We didn’t pitch smart. I don’t know if guys were anxious or trying to overthrow or their heartrate was up.”
The Gators for years have been known as the premier pitching program in the country. Guys like Hudson Randall, Brian Johnson, Logan Shore, Alex Faedo, Brady Singer, Dane Dunning and Michael Byrne have led the Gators to SEC Championships, trips to the College World Series and a national title in 2017. Those days feel like ancient history right about now.
It’s easy to dismiss the Miami series as one bad weekend and believe that things will turn around soon. Perhaps they will, but there’s a reason to be extremely worried about this pitching staff. In 2019, the team posted a ghastly 5.37 earned run average, which ranked next to last in the conference. They’re at 5.23 after the first weekend of 2021. Was the strong start to the 2020 season nothing more than an outlier created by the small sample size?
O’Sullivan is trying to identify the issues so he can fix them. The struggles against the Hurricanes were befuddling.
“Some of the guys that have been there before just did not pitch as well as they should’ve,” he said. “It literally happened within a 48-hour period, and I don’t have any answers. If anybody’s going to ask me why or how or what, I don’t know. These guys have all pitched on the weekend. They’ve been pretty consistent in the fall. They’ve been pretty consistent in the spring. I don’t know.”
He better figure it out quickly. Otherwise, a promising season might get completely derailed soon.