It wasn’t even three months ago that Florida and Kentucky had a battle royale set up in Lexington with the SEC basketball championship on the line. And with the location moved to Gainesville, and the sport switched to baseball, the schools are set to do it again this weekend.
Prior to the hardwood edition of the de facto SEC Title Game, I wrote in great length that the SEC Championship itself didn’t matter, that it was more about the intangibles than winning a conference title than the trophy and distinction. And to a degree, that remains the case for the baseball series; winning the SEC gives you an easier draw in the SEC Tournament, which Florida doesn’t care one iota about, and a trophy that ultimately pales in comparison to what the team does in the ensuing month.
However, in baseball, winning the SEC Title means exponentially more than it does in basketball. Like the basketball NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, the baseball Selection Committee takes everything from strong wins, bad losses, RPI, team record… and whether you won your conference or not into account when making the field of 64. Unlike the basketball tournament, seeding actually means something in the baseball tournament; the top sixteen teams get to host the Regional round and the top eight seeds get to host the Super Regional round should they get there. The seedings from 1-8 don’t mean a damned thing other than how the final stage would shape up should they all advance to Omaha, but getting one of those top eight seeds gives you a decided advantage over those that don’t.
Thus, being able to say that Florida won the SEC and Kentucky didn’t would go a long way in giving the Gators a more favorable road to Omaha. There are roughly 20 teams battling for those eight slots as the regular season winds to a close, with the combatants in this weekend’s high profile series being two of them. The Gators need every advantage over any other top 20 team they can get right now, particularly one as hot on their heels as Kentucky is. Per D1Baseball.com, Florida and Kentucky are ranked 5th and 6th right now, respectively, which means that both would be top eight seeds if the tourney started tomorrow but that neither one has safely locked up one of those slots.
Florida could probably lock one up if they win the series over Kentucky, and thus, the SEC. In case you’re wondering, yes, those two do go hand in hand. The Gators currently lead the SEC with 19 wins, with Kentucky one back at 18. A sweep of the Wildcats would end the debate before it began. But the Gators don’t necessarily have to sweep to claim the crown. Florida winning two out of three would put them at 21 wins, with Kentucky at 19. LSU enters the weekend tied with Kentucky at 18 SEC wins, but only a sweep of Mississippi State would keep their SEC Title hopes alive in this scenario, which would force a tie with 21 wins apiece. And Florida would be able to break that tie and claim full possession of the SEC Championship because they took two out of three from LSU when the teams played back in March.
If any of this is going to happen, Florida’s offense is going to have to continue the full fledged assault it launched last month against Vanderbilt and has carried on ever since. The Gators’ pitching has been fine, if somewhat underwhelming, in recent weeks, but Kentucky’s lineup is nothing short of an array of loaded weapons with four of the league’s top seven batting averages in Evan White, Tristan Pompey, Zach Res and Riley Mahan. As talented as Alex Faedo, Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar are, they can’t be counted on to completely shut the Wildcats down.
To put a completely different spin on this, that’s essentially what the Gators want. Yes, they’re fighting for an SEC Title and the chance to wrap up a top eight seed, but the stakes they’ll face this weekend come as close to matching those of an NCAA Tournament game as they can possibly get. We’ve seen JJ Schwarz come up clutch repeatedly through his three years, even as he struggled early in 2017, but what about the rest of the team? What about guys like Jonathan India and Deacon Liput, who appear mired in sophomore slumps after breakout freshman seasons a year ago? What about Mike Rivera in his first game back after missing the last month?
This is the time of year where it’s imperative that things are clicking, even if the team doesn’t win. It’s difficult to sit here and write how important it is that Florida win this series without clearly labeling the obvious disclaimer. If Florida wins two games this weekend because Kentucky makes a critical error in the late stages of both games and doesn’t do much right on their own, those who objectively watch the game will not be particularly happy. In two weeks, winning will be all that matters. Not this weekend. And not next week in Hoover.
A series win over Kentucky would give the Gators… read these next few words slowly… at least a share of the 2017 SEC Championship. It would be the school’s 14th SEC Title, tying Alabama for second all time behind only LSU’s 16. Sure it pales in comparison to the hardwood that gets handed out a month later, but it would still serve as a flashing, video game-esque +1 to the Gator baseball program’s prestige. Not to mention how much it would help the Gators in terms of locking up that top eight seed.
However you choose to look at this series, though, one thing is clear.
It’s a big deal.