Orlando Sentinel

Gators riding surge

Team aims to build on big week with five victories and live up to No. 1 ranking

- By Edgar Thompson

Two months from now, Florida baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan hopes to reflect on the past week as a turning point.

A lot of baseball remains prior to the start of the College World Series on June 19. But a sevenday, five-victory stretch displayed the pitching, defense and grit the Gators will need to meet the lofty expectatio­ns that O’Sullivan’s program faces each spring in Gainesvill­e.

“We’re just hoping we can get on a roll here and keep everything going,” second baseman Josh Rivera said.

Rivera and the surging Gators (25-11, 9-6 SEC) have the talent and firepower to handle all comers.

Yet UF will be hard-pressed to duplicate its latest run of success.

Last Sunday’s comeback at Tennessee, an extra-inning win Tuesday at home against Florida State and a three-game sweep of Missouri during a span of 22 hours combined for a unique — if not unpreceden­ted — stretch by O’Sullivan’s squad.

Against Missouri, the Gators waited out a three-hour rain delay Friday evening before picking up an 8-5 win during the early-morning hours Saturday. Heavy rains forecasted Sunday forced the teams to begin a doublehead­er at 1 p.m. Saturday, ending with UF victories by counts of 8-6 and 6-4.

The 52-year-old O’Sullivan could not recall any team reeling off three wins in a day’s time during his 14 seasons in Gainesvill­e.

“It’s crazy,” he said. Rivera, a freshman from Avon Park, said the jam-packed weekend schedule was reminiscen­t of tournament­s with his youth travel team.

“It gave us flashbacks to summer ball we all used to play before we got here to college,” he said. “The biggest thing is making sure everybody was ready to compete every inning.”

A competitiv­e spark at times has been missing during the 2021 season.

UF opened the year as Baseball America’s preseason No. 1 team for the fifth time in the past 11 seasons. But during March, the Gators suffered surprising one-run losses at home to Florida Atlantic and Jacksonvil­le, lost 10-2 at FSU and were swept at South Carolina.

The Gators were 5-6 in SEC play entering Game 3 last Sunday at Tennessee, but a three-run pinch-hit home run from sophomore Kris Armstrong during the eighth inning erased a 6-4 deficit

and prevented a sweep by the Vols.

UF backed up the 7-6 win in Knoxville with a dramatic 3-2 victory two days later at home against FSU, courtesy of a walk-off home run to left field in the 10th inning by Kendrick Calilao, a sophomore from Kissimmee.

Calilao’s heroics were complement­ed by pitcher Jack Leftwich’s reawakenin­g. Awarded losses during his three previous appearance­s, Leftwich did not allow a hit and registered seven strikeouts during four innings of relief against the Seminoles.

Leftwich previously yielded nine runs in eight innings during losses to South Carolina and Ole Miss. But the low point for the junior from Orlando occurred during a 5-4 Game 2 loss at Tennessee, where he allowed two bases on balls on eight pitches to put the winning run on base before exiting the game.

Riding the momentum of the FSU performanc­e, Leftwich (7-4) picked up the win during the first game Saturday against Missouri, pitching four hitless innings and striking out two Tigers.

“It’s never fun to see one of the older guys like that struggle,” Rivera said. “It was real special for us and him to go out there and pitch like the Jack Leftwich we know.”

While Leftwich regained his swagger, he saw around him a team playing with purpose, confidence and killer instinct. Not that he expected anything less from the Gators.

“Every team goes through ups and down, so we knew we were going to hit our stride,” said Leftwich, a 6-foot-4 right-hander. “I think the way we stay up is the energy. I think if we’re confident every day, have good energy, cheering everyone on and stuff, then we’re going to win the majority of the games. When we come out flat, that just can’t happen —— and that’s when you struggle.

“The past five games, the energy’s been really good.”

The wins have followed. What’s next was O’Sullivan’s focus Sunday.

The Gators generated double-digit hit totals during all three Missouri wins, but UF’s coach wants to see his team eliminate errors — UF had three, Missouri none during the three games — and execute the game’s fine points, notably bunting in key situations and holding runners on base.

“It obviously was good to see,’ O’Sullivan said of the hitting. “But I always thought we were going to be a good offensive team.”

O’Sullivan also continues his search for a reliable starting pitching rotation. UF has started five different pitchers during the past four three-game SEC series.

“The bullpen was outstandin­g,” O’Sullivan said Saturday night. “But at some point you’d like to settle in on three starters.”

Yet the Gators showed last week enough positive signs to give their coach plenty of reasons for optimism.

O’Sullivan turns to the past when his teams struggle and the weight of expectatio­ns creeps in. Following the Missouri sweep, he recalled the 2017 Gators, who also were 6-6 in SEC play following a one-run win against Tennessee to avoid a Vols’ sweep.

Those Gators eventually found their stride and won the College World Series.

“Kind of went on a run,” O’Sullivan said, using some serious understate­ment.

For now, Florida is making steps in the right direction.

 ?? MCCULLOUGH/AP GARY ?? Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s Gators won five games in seven days, including a sweep of Missouri during the span of 24 hours.
MCCULLOUGH/AP GARY Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s Gators won five games in seven days, including a sweep of Missouri during the span of 24 hours.

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