After an uncharacteristically down 2019 Gator baseball season, fans might have been left wondering what was to come in 2020. It’s too early to declare the answer as clear- but early signs are as bright as the sun.
Traveling down to Coral Gables as the #2 team in the land according to D1Baseball.com, Kevin O’Sullivan’s Florida squad methodically dispatched Miami, the only team ranked higher than them in those rankings, in three straight games. First came a 2-1 thriller on Friday night in eleven innings, then came an exhilarating 7-4 victory in ten innings, and for a finale, the Gators took down the Hurricanes 5-3 on Sunday afternoon to extend Florida’s dominance in the series. The sweep puts Florida at 8-0 for just the fifth time ever, and the first since 2002.
That dominance is worth a closer look, because it’s simply nothing short of astounding. Since the 2009 NCAA Gainesville Regional, Florida has now beaten Miami 33 times in the last 41 games, including five straight dating back to last year’s series. 13 of those 33 were routs, coming by five runs or more, and four were shutouts. Florida has also won six consecutive regular season series over their rivals to the south, and ten of the last eleven- two of the last four of which were sweeps. And on top of all that, the Gators 1-2 punched Miami out of the 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2015 NCAA Tournament- the latter example of which was a pair of annihilations in the 2015 College World Series by a combined score of 25-5.
Also worth noting is that Florida has now swept Miami in football, basketball and baseball in the 2019-20 academic year, which is the first time this has happened in the in-state rivalry’s history. To clarify, I’m not talking about beating the Canes in football and basketball and winning the season series in baseball; no, I’m talking about winning every single game in each of those so-called “Big 3 sports” that the two schools played in the same year (with at least one game played in each sport). So that’s all major bragging rights over an in-state foe.
But while bragging rights are admittedly a great deal of fun, what’s more important is that after this past weekend, it’s become clear that this Gator baseball season has the chance to be a special one. Because only an elite team has it in them to pull out three straight nail biters over the top ranked team in the nation.
It started on Friday night, a classic pitcher’s duel between Miami’s Brian Van Belle and Florida’s Tommy Mace. Each ace gave up a lone run, and the teams were deadlocked at one after nine innings.
The Gators seemed to have a great chance to take the lead in the tenth after freshman Josh Rivera doubled down the first base line and then advanced to third on a wild pitch, but perished there when Cal Greenfield flied out. In the bottom of the tenth, Miami appeared to have an even better chance to score- and win- following a JP Gates single. Tony Jenkins laid down a sacrifice bunt and was initially ruled safe when the throw to first hit him in the back, which moved Gates to third. But the umpires got together and ruled Jenkins out for interference since he was running too far inside the first base foul line, which sent Gates back to first. Florida’s Ben Specht then coaxed a popup and an inning ending groundout to end the frame.
Having seen the game flash before their eyes, Florida fought back and came through in the top of the eleventh. Austin Langworthy started the rally with an RBI single into center field, and Jordan Butler moved him into scoring position with a single between the 3-4 hole in the infield. That set the stage for Jacob Young, who laced a double down the left field line to score Langworthy and make it 2-1 Gators. Though Florida couldn’t score any more, Nick Pogue would come on for Specht and slam the door shut for a 2-1 win in the series opener.
Game two on Saturday night was more of the same, yet even more heart-stopping. Jack Leftwich of Florida and Chris McMahon of Miami each were spectacular through six innings, as were their successors from their respective bullpens. And again, it came down to the wire.
Miami led 2-1 going to the top of the ninth, and had Florida’s Jud Fabian down to the Gators’ final strike with Kris Armstrong on first. But Fabian delivered in the ultimate crunch time situation, lining a double down the left field line to score Armstrong and knot the game at two. That sent the game into the tenth- where the Gators exploded.
Kirby McMullen started the merry go round with a mammoth home run over the left field wall off of Alex McFarlane, pausing long enough after rounding third base to exchange some pleasantries with Miami infielders, who had been jabbering from their bench all night long. That prompted a warning from the umpires to both teams to cut the antics and just play baseball. Evidently, only one team got the message. Clearly rattled, McFarlane issued walks to Cory Acton and Nathan Hickey to re-stock the bases with Gators. Albert Maury replaced him on the mound, but he fared no better, serving up back-to-back-to-back singles to Armstrong, Rivera and the pitcher Specht. That all made it 6-2. Still obviously shaken up, Miami’s Tyler Paige threw the ball away on a routine grounder from Fabian to plate another run and make it 7-2. Miami did get two of those runs back in the bottom of the tenth, but Specht re-settled himself and got the three outs he needed, ending the game on a routine fly ball from Anthony Vilar to center field to ensure that Florida would win the series.
And it was at that point that any doubts about how much this series meant to Florida were erased; the team swarmed each other in the infield, not quite with the fervor of winning the College World Series or even punching a ticket to it, but more at the level you’d expect to see a team celebrate when they punctuate a big statement that they’d been dreaming of making all offseason long. Yes, some of the emotions came out in the form of taunting- Cory Acton pointed at the Miami bench and roasted the Hurricanes by flipping the famous “upside down U” – but that was merely the undercard. By clinching the series, Florida finally had something to feel good about after a disappointing 2019 campaign.
With the series in their back pocket, Florida went for the sweep on Sunday, which would have been a relatively calm game except for one thing- the true arrival of freshman pitcher Hunter Barco. After throwing two de facto warmup innings against Jacksonville on Tuesday, Barco faced his first true test against Miami in the series finale. With his teammates quickly staking him a 3-0 lead, the rookie left-hander was overall great, giving up one earned run on two hits in five and one-third innings of work, striking out seven Hurricanes along the way.
After Fabian smacked a solo homer to left to make it 4-1, David Luethje took over for Barco with one out in the sixth and got Florida through the seventh, although he did give up a two run bomb to Raymond Gil to start the eighth to cut the lead to 4-3. Ryan Cabarcas then came in and slammed the door shut, getting the final six outs sandwiched around a ninth inning insurance run. When Cabarcas struck out Tony Jenkins with two outs in the ninth, to end the game, reality began to set in.
In sweeping a very good Miami team in a highly hostile environment, Florida flashed all the puzzle pieces necessary to make the 2020 Gator baseball season one to remember. The Canes’ pitching staff is one of the better ones in the country, and while Florida didn’t exactly light them up throughout the weekend, the Gators did collect the timely hits, something that was a bit of a concern at points last year. Meanwhile, Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich seem to form a formidable 1-2 combination as the Friday and Saturday starters, and Hunter Barco did nothing to disprove the sky-high hopes he came to Gainesville with. And Florida showed off its embarrassment of riches in the bullpen, with Specht, Luethje, Cabarcas, Pogue and Christian Scott all doing their jobs in relief efforts.
Of course, it’s still February, and what you see in February is not sufficient evidence to brag about what your team might do in June. But with its sweep of the Miami Hurricanes, Florida did make a statement, and a very simple one at that: watch out.