The University of Florida may be LSU’s biggest pain in the side across all sports. Of course there’s football, but Florida and LSU have fierce rivalries in gymnastics, men’s basketball and baseball especially in light of the 2017 College World Series.
That Florida finally broke through and won its first baseball national championship at LSU’s expense is maddening. But instead of focusing on the past, we’re looking forward. Nick de la Torre of Gator Country joins us today to preview the Gators. Follow him on Twitter @NickdelaTorreGC.
1. Florida is a top-five team according to basically all significant college baseball polls. But so too are Vanderbilt and Georgia. Only one of these teams can win the East, make the case for Florida.
Since Kevin O’Sullivan has been in Gainesville they’ve been a force. 2018 was obviously a down year for the Gators but considering the amount of talent that they had lost in the previous 3-4 years we probably should have seen a year like that coming.
This year the Gators return Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich on Friday-Saturday and have a lot of sophomore arms to contend for that Sunday role, as well as being able to come out of the bullpen. Their freshman class was also very good, ranked as high as No. 1 by some outlets. Hunter Barco is a stud, two-way player (L/L) but will mostly throw for the Gators this season and freshman Brandon Sproat has been 95-98 on the mound in the fall and early spring.
The Gators have a good mix of veteran players (Kirby McMullen and Austin Langworthy return as seniors) as well as a lot of young guys that played a ton last year. I think it’s a good mix of youth; experience and talent that should get Florida back to where they’re used to being.
2. It feels like Florida always has one of the best pitching staffs in the nation. How does this staff stack up to previous years and who’s the guy you’d want on the mound in a winner take all game?
That will completely depend on Mace and Leftwich. For as long as Kevin O’Sullivan has been in Gainesville he’s had that Friday tone-setter. Logan Shore, Alex Faedo, Brady Singer to name a few. Those guys that can go out and give you a quality start on Friday really set the tone for the entire weekend. Then you need a couple of guys to step up out of the bullpen. Last year the freshmen pitched like freshmen and they need to step up this season. There’s no other way to say it or sugarcoat it, the bullpen lost Florida multiple games in 2018 and guys like Nick Pogue, Ben Specht, Justin Alintoff, Nolan Crisp and David Leuthje need to get it together early on or they’ll watch their innings disappear.
3. The Gators had a rough go of things in SEC play last year. 13-17 and then getting bounced by Texas A&M early in Hoover. How does Florida reverse its fortunes and reclaim its place among the SEC elites?
The Gators need to have reliable pitching. Last year they hit the ball better than the team that won a National Championship in 2017 (by a large margin) but couldn’t get reliable starts or innings out of the bullpen. This year’s team will have a lot of pop and power from 1-9 but you’re going to run into some dudes on the mound in the SEC and if your pitching staff is giving up 7-8 runs on a Friday night consistently it doesn’t matter how much you hit, you’ll lose games that way.
4. Every team has to replace key pieces from the previous season. Florida will have to replace it’s top two bats, Nelson Maldonado and Brady McConnell. Who do the Gators look to try and replace them?
Freshman Josh Rivera will be the Gators’ starting shortstop. He’s a smooth fielder and he will be a plus-bat in the lineup as well. Rivera is a stud, a future All-SEC type of guy and he’s tasked with replacing McConnell. He’ll be hitting in the middle of the lineup from day one.
There are a couple of guys to replace Maldonado in the DH spot. Sophomore Kris Armstrong is one that immediately caught my attention. He had surgery over the summer and didn’t play summer ball but it looks like he’s added a solid 15 pounds to his long frame. He’s been absolutely hammering baseballs all fall and spring. He can play either corner infield spot, as well as DH. Senior Kirby McMullen has been tearing the cover off of the ball all offseason and he’ll get an opportunity to play early on. Brady Smith has been moved from catcher, where he struggled defensively and will play corner infield or DH as well. The last of the group is Jordan Butler, the junior will still pitch for the Gators but as a lefty, he’s obviously limited to first base or DH when he’s not throwing. Those are the four guys right now that are really trying to fill in two available spots. Whoever hits will play.
5. What’s the ceiling for the 2020 Florida Gators? Is this a team we’ll see in Omaha?
I think the ceiling for every Florida team is always Omaha. The 2019 team was so young and they never really got it going. This team is much more experienced than the last year so I think to say that Florida can’t get to Omaha would be short-sided. We’ll learn a lot about this team in the first two months of the season. They have a big road test in Miami the second week of the season and we’ll see how they handle that. They also start right off with Georgia when SEC play starts so that should be a great series to start conference play.