What went wrong for the 2021 UF baseball team

This offseason could be the most important one of the Kevin O’Sullivan era.

O’Sullivan has fielded worse teams than the 2021 squad. The 2013 team finished 29-30 and went 0-2 in the Bloomington Regional. The 2019 team went 34-26 and won just one game in the Lubbock Regional.

However, both of those teams were expected to take a step back. They both relied on a ton of young but talented players following a mass exodus of elite talent to the MLB Draft from the previous years’ teams. By the end of those two seasons, a strong nucleus of young stars had emerged, and you felt confident that the down year was merely a necessary bump in the road on the way to bigger and better things.

This offseason feels completely different. The Gators will lose three players to graduation, and there are seven players who could realistically get drafted high enough to consider signing a professional contract. Among them are the top two batters in the lineup in Jacob Young and Nathan Hickey, their home run leader in Jud Fabian, two weekend starting pitchers in Tommy Mace and Franco Aleman and the only three bullpen arms O’Sullivan trusted down the stretch in Christian Scott, Jack Leftwich, and Trey Van Der Weide.

Additionally, four players have already entered the transfer portal in first baseman/left-handed pitcher Jordan Butler, infielder Cory Acton, outfielder Brock Edge and right-handed pitcher Andrew Roberts. More could be on the way as the coaching staff conducts exit interviews with the players over the coming days.

With all of that attrition plus the addition of about 15 freshmen in the fall, you have a hard time seeing how they’re going to be better next season than they were this season.

That’s what makes this offseason a crossroads for O’Sullivan and co. If they nail their roster management decisions and tweak some things over the next few months, the Gators could be back among the nation’s elite programs very soon. If not, they run the risk of slipping further into mediocrity.

But all of that will work itself out in time. In the interim, it’s time to figure out what the heck went wrong with the 2021 Gators. How did they go from being the preseason unanimous No. 1 team in the country to going 0-2 and losing 19-1 to South Alabama in a home regional?

Here are the five biggest factors that explain the underwhelming 2021 season:

1. They didn’t handle the expectations well.

This was the biggest storyline of the preseason. Fans were calling this a national-championship-or-bust season. To their credit, the Gators answered the questions as well as could be expected. They talked about how this year’s team had never played a single game together, about how they hadn’t earned anything yet and about how adversity would strike at some point during the season.

However, once the games started, it became very clear that they weren’t ready for this. Once they choked away the second game of the year to Miami, you knew that something was off with this group.

They seemed uptight and stressed out from the start. When you watch the Super Regionals this weekend, take notice of how teams like Vanderbilt, Arkansas and Ole Miss celebrate big home runs or clutch strikeouts. Then go back and watch UF’s dugout after Kris Armstrong hit a home run to cut USF’s lead to 5-3 in the eighth inning last Friday. You’d think the Gators would be fired up and ready to fight back and make it a game again. Instead, the dugout had about as much energy as a dead battery.

Whereas other teams played with aggression and like they were trying to earn something, the Gators played defensive and like they were trying to protect their preseason status. That likely became mentally draining after a while.

The preseason rankings and the lack of adversity in the shortened 2020 season also created a mentally weak team. Offensively, you could tell by the third inning what kind of game they were going to have. If they scored early runs and bunched hits together, that would continue, and they’d have an excellent day at the plate. If they failed to score and struck out five times in the first three innings, you could count on them scoring no more than two runs and striking out 15 times that night.

On the mound, they’d put together about five really good innings before walking the leadoff batter and hitting the second guy in the sixth inning. Rather than putting the rough start to the inning behind them and trying to limit the damage, they’d completely implode, and four or five runs would go up on the board in a hurry.

This team had the talent, but they lacked the competitive edge.

2. The pitching staff wasn’t as deep as we thought.

Sure, the preseason losses of Nick Pogue and Tyler Nesbitt to Tommy John surgery were extremely detrimental to this pitching staff. They were going to be two of their most trusted relievers.

But bullpen depth was supposed to be the biggest strength of this team. They were supposed to be able to overcome an injury or two in a way that no other team in the country could.

That obviously turned out to be false.

Ben Specht’s cataclysmic collapse was the thing that killed the bullpen the most. He was one of the top closers in the country in 2020 and was expected to get drafted within the first five rounds this July. The prevailing thought was that the Gators had three excellent starters and a dominant closer, and they just needed to find enough middle-relievers to bridge the gap.

Instead, Specht fell off of a cliff this spring. He missed more than a month early in the season with an injury. He made just five appearances after he returned and gave up 15 earned runs in six innings during that stretch. He finished the year with a 13.86 ERA.

Brandon Sproat touched 100 miles per hour several times, but his control came and went seemingly out of nowhere. He finished with a 6.65 ERA in 21 2/3 innings.

Highly touted freshman Timmy Manning experienced major control issues and walked 13 batters in 15 innings. He produced a 6.60 ERA.

Ryan Cabarcas was expected to be their go-to lefty, but he also struggled to the tune of a 6.75 ERA in 9 1/3 innings.

By the end of the season, O’Sullivan only trusted three relievers enough to even put them in games during the weekend, and one of them was a converted starter in Leftwich. And even the three of them experienced some major struggles throughout the year.

It all added up to a 4.38 team ERA, the third highest of the O’Sullivan era.

3. They didn’t have an ace.

Tommy Mace was probably the best competitor on the team, and he gave his team a chance to win more often than not, but his fastball was way too hittable against the best competition. He gave up four earned runs to South Carolina, four to Tennessee, six to Missouri, six to Vanderbilt, four to Kentucky, three to Arkansas and three to South Florida.

He finished the season with a 6-2 record and a 4.38 ERA.

He’s the type of pitcher that would ideally start on Sundays when the opposing team is running out of arms. O’Sullivan even bumped him from his ace role for six weeks before promoting him down the stretch.

Every championship-level team needs that dominant No. 1 starter that you know will never be the reason you lose a game. Those types of pitchers push the position players to field better and hit better to have his back. The Gators didn’t have that guy on the mound this year.

4. The offense was too streaky.

Florida currently ranks sixth in the SEC with a .279 batting average and seventh in runs scored. Those statistics look decent on paper until you look at some of the extreme highs and lows they went through.

The Gators scored 22 runs on 38 hits in three games against Miami. They scored 18 runs in one game against Samford but turned around and mustered just two runs on five hits in their next game against Florida Atlantic.

In conference play, they scored eight runs on nine hits in the opener against South Carolina. They combined for just six runs on 11 hits in the next two games. They scored 23 runs in three games against Vanderbilt but scored only eight runs in their final four games of the regular season against Georgia and Arkansas.

They scored 20 runs on 32 hits in SEC Tournament beatdowns of Mississippi State and Alabama but scored only four runs on 18 hits in their final game of the SEC Tournament and their two regional games.

Strikeouts were largely to blame for the inconsistency. While they ranked near the middle of the SEC in strikeouts, they came in bunches. They struck out at least 12 times in a game on 12 occasions this season, including 19 in the 14-inning loss at South Carolina. When nearly half of your outs per game don’t even require the defense to make a play, it’s hard to consistently generate offense.

5. They got away from doing the little things.

When this program was at its best from 2010-18, it paired elite pitching with position players that knew how to create every possible advantage within games. Whether it was a runner on first taking an extra base on a single to the outfield, getting a bunt down or an outfielder making a strong throw to limit an opposing batter to a single, it seemed like they were always making plays that didn’t show up in the box score but had a huge impact on the outcome of the game.

You can probably count the number of games where the baserunning and fielding was a net positive for the Gators in 2021 on one hand. It felt like they made silly baserunning and fielding mistakes every game. You can probably go back and find a handful of those seemingly insignificant plays that made the difference between being 17-13 in the league and winning the conference. The margin really was that small.

They fielded .969 as a team, which ranks last in the conference. They rank next-to-last in sacrifice bunts and tied for 11th in stolen bases.

The Gators have always been enormously talented under O’Sullivan, but they also used to be an extremely disciplined team that rivaled some major league clubs with their execution. Somewhere over the past three years, that crispness has given way to a sloppy brand of baseball that always seems to rear its ugly head at the worst times possible.

The coaches need to find out why these things aren’t translating from practices to games and get the Gators back to running like a well-oiled machine again.

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.