For the top-ranked, defending SEC tournament champions, the 2016 campaign has a certain “hunter seeking hunted” feel to it. According to D1Baseball.com’s top 300 list of MLB college prospects, UF appears three times…in the top 15 alone. There is clearly not another team as talented as this Gators squad led by head coach Kevin O’Sullivan.
At least not on paper.
So far, so good in terms of matching those lofty expectations. And with the 6-0 drubbing of arch-rival Florida State before opening conference play Friday against Missouri, the Gators have succeeded in controlling momentum entering the tough SEC schedule.
Wielding a #1 spot in your title can lead to some blowback for teams, especially when that team isn’t ready and willing to compete in practice and games; Florida has proven itself to be a team eager to face challenges, even when vocally called out and questioned by O’Sullivan during the early parts of the season. O’Sullivan likely wanted to get his team’s attention more than anything.
And the Gators have responded with an 18-1 record.
After back to back three-game home sweeps of Florida Gulf Coast and Eastern Michigan, the Gators traveled to Coral Gables for a top-10 battle with No. 6 Miami. Florida ended Miami’s season in the College World Series last year, and appeared ready to take care of business against a revenge-seeking team in a hostile environment. Miami football players were reportedly jealous of the baseball team playing in front of so many fans. It is not clear whether or not Mark Richt has spoken on this.
Anyway, the Gators continued their dominance against against the Hurricanes by taking two of three games, including the deciding 7-3 victory on Sunday, February 28. Florida has won 23 of the last 29 meetings with Miami, including two separate eliminations of the ‘Canes in the College World Series.
As for how it happened? Florida’s ace right-hander, Logan Shore, showed why he is the nation’s best pitcher by leading the Gators to his first career shutout victory. Shore completed his work of art by painting the plate with an array of breaking balls, fastballs, and sliders (97 pitches in total) which kept Miami batters guessing all night.
In a baffling performance during game three and almost as if to 1-up his teammate Shore, 6-foot-5 sophomore pitcher Alex Faedo pitched 6 1/3 innings, yielding no hits and walking two batters. When it was all said and done, the Gators won 7-3 after coming within three outs of no-hitting the Hurricanes entering the last inning. It would have been the first time since 1964 that Miami managed zero hits in a ballgame. Nonetheless, Florida smacked around Miami and did more that gaining a series win – Florida demoralized its south Florida counterpart.
After taking its talent to south Florida, the Gators’ final stop in a five game state road trip was Orlando to face the UCF Knights. Florida’s performance at the plate was enough to muscle itself to a 9-5 victory, which included 14 total. Dalton Guthrie, Pete Alonso, and Buddy Reed all contributed doubles in the sixth inning to put a seal on Florida’s lead the rest of the night. The Gators are 8-5 all time at UCF.
Back in Gainesville, game two against the Knights featured UF’s freshman pitcher Jackson Kowar who made his first collegiate start. Kowar’s eight strikeouts over five innings in which he allowed no runs insured a memorable debut for the freshman. The Gators would win 4-0, after 4th inning errors doomed UCF and aided three runs for the Orange and Blue.
The theme of Florida’s most recent series against Dartmouth was maturity. The Big Green of Dartmouth entered (and left) Gainesville winless, but proved to be a scrappy team that Florida could not toy with. Dartmouth challenged the Gators in the last two games of the series after Florida teed off the series with a 7-0 win; Florida’s 3rd shutout in a six game stretch. Game two was a battle that saw Dartmouth gain an early lead until JJ Schwarz’s RBI single in the 7th to give UF a 3-2 lead. The Big Green would battle, however, and sent the game to extra innings, which meant the McKethan stadium crowd would certainly get their money’s worth. The first pitch of the bottom of the 12th inning would be the final pitch of the night—Buddy Reed sent it flying over the right field wall for his first homer of the year.
The final game of the series on a beautiful, cool day in Gainesville was the most explosive by far. Florida improved to 12-1 overall, but faced more adversity when Dartmouth built a 3-0 lead early on and kept the Gators off the scoreboard until the 5th. That’s when Buddy Reed answered that call once again, smashing a triple and tying the game at three runs apiece. JJ Schwarz gave UF the lead when his grounder was mishandled, and the Gators built a seemingly comfortable 7-3 lead by the 7th inning. Dartmouth battled back and even managed to get the tying run to the plate. But UF sent Nick Horvath in to close things out, and 8-6 would be the final from Gainesville. Alex Faedo (3-0) was credited the win. The Dartmouth series was everything the Gators could have wanted at this point in the series: it was challenging, back and forth, and a growing experience for the No. 1 team in the country that has plenty of youth contributing on the field.
A quick home-and-home skirmish with UNF saw the Gators improve its record against the state of Florida to 9-1—UF’s best start in the Kevin O’Sullivan era. The Gators then extended its winning streak to 11 after a three game sweep of Harvard in Gainesville.
Game 1 featured a season-high in hits for the Gators (20), while Logan Shore improved to 4-0 on the mound. Shore struggled early, giving up two runs which ended his scoreless innings streak at 18.1. Shore’s early trouble was surprising but hardly devastating—the Gator offense made it quite clear with 11 runs of its own after three innings. Harvard was overwhelmed while Florida was still heating up, and the Gators claimed a 16-5 win.
Friday’s game was followed up by a doubleheader on Saturday, March 12. Florida’s bats were once again the story in a 9-2 victory in Game 2, until things slowed down dramatically Saturday night. After 25 runs between two games, the Gators found themselves scoreless entering the seventh inning of Game 3. This was no big deal. Alex Faedo had a career night on the mound for UF—striking out 13 batters, walking none, and retiring 19 straight to open the game—while improving to 4-0 on the season.
A two-run double from freshman Nelson Maldonado broke the game open in the seventh, and the Gators completed the sweep of Harvard, 3-1. For the year, the Gators have four batters who currently have an average of .400 or better (Peter Alonso, Dalton Guthrie, and Deacon Liput).
Top-ranked Florida improved to 17-1, with a ton of energy entering Tuesday’s game with No. 11 Florida State in Gainesville. This was the first of a three-game series with the Seminoles. The two teams will play again on March 29 in Jacksonville before finishing things up on April 12 in Tallahassee.
And by now, we all know how it went: Florida took advantage of a comical array of FSU errors in that 6-0 win over the Noles to get to 18-1.
Sure, it’s a long season. But up to this point, the Gators have done pretty much all they could have done.