The Gator baseball team is the overall third national seed in the NCAA Baseball Tournament and will be hosting the Gainesville Regional, with their first game coming against Marist (32-21) on Friday night.
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) May 29, 2017
This scenario seemed unlikely to many who follow the team just a month and a half ago. Florida was an underwhelming 18-11 and were just 6-6 in the SEC, which included getting swept by Auburn and dropping a home series to Tennessee. While the weekend pitching was solid, the bats were struggling, with many in the lineup batting below .250.
Then suddenly, the bats woke up and the Gators went on a tear.
Florida (42-16) finished the regular season by winning 20 out of their last 24 games, and came all the way back to capture a share of the SEC regular season title. In addition, the Gator lineup returned to full strength and it showed.
J.J. Schwarz bounced back from an early season slump to lead the team in RBIs (46) and home runs (nine). Ryan Larson broke out to be second on the team in batting average at .318, just behind Nelson Maldonado .325.
All of these forces came together to Florida being a national top 8 seed, something they’ve gotten used to, despite getting bounced in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament.
Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said the Gators key to success down the stretch has been the consistent weekend pitching combined with the hot hitting the past few weeks, which he says has been sparked by the bat of Schwarz.
While that consistent rotation of Alex Faedo-Brady Singer-Jackson Kowar has worked well for Florida this season, O’Sullivan is shaking it up for this weekend.
Kowar will be getting the nod on Friday instead of Faedo, with O’Sullivan saying that if “it wasn’t Jackson Kowar we wouldn’t do it, but I have enough trust in Jackson to be able to get us off to a good start in the regional.”
Kowar has shown himself to be trustworthy, posting an impressive 11-0 record so far in his sophomore campaign, and putting up a 3.74 ERA.
Returning to the lineup this weekend will be shortstop Dalton Guthrie. O’Sullivan said Guthrie should be “good to go” after missing the SEC Tournament last week with a sprained ankle injury suffered in the Kentucky series. While Guthrie returns to the lineup, Larson will be absent, at least for this weekend, with hopes that he’d be back for super regionals, according to O’Sullivan. He took a pitch to the head area in the SEC tournament against Mississippi State, and was forced to leave the game.
The Gators will look for the balance of pitching and hitting to continue against Marist. Marist enters as the champions of the MAAC, and are led by MAAC Pitcher of the Year Charlie Jerla (9-1, 3.92 ERA). Offensively, all-conference selections Tyler Kapuscinski and Frankie Gregoire lead the charge. Kapuscinksi hits at a .331 clip while Gregoire has nine home runs on the season.
If the Gators are able to win on Friday, they would play again on Saturday night against the winner of South Florida-Bethune Cookman. O’Sullivan isn’t focused on the specifics of who Florida is playing though.
“I don’t really think much about the bracket,” he said. “It is what it is. The committee makes those decisions, and we’ll play whoever they put in front of us, and hopefully we play our best baseball here at the end.”