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