As second baseman Deacon Liput shifted to his left, corralled the ground ball and fired it over to first base, Florida’s dugout erupted with cheers like it never had before.
UF’s baseball team has won a lot of big games over the course of its program’s history, but nothing compares to what it accomplished this week: its first ever national championship.
The Gators defeated LSU 6-1 in Game 2 of the College World Series Finals on Tuesday night, sweeping the Tigers to cap off a season Florida fans will long remember for its stellar pitching, a mid-season turnaround, an SEC championship and a dramatic NCAA Tournament run.
UF went 10-3 in the national postseason, surviving three winner-take-all games against Bethune-Cookman in the NCAA Regional, Wake Forest in the NCAA Super Regional and TCU in the CWS to set up a finals showdown against LSU.
The Gators then did something they hadn’t done in 103 years of existence, earning back-to-back victories on college baseball’s biggest stage to clinch their first NCAA title and Florida’s 39th overall national championship among its 21 varsity sports.
“I’m just overwhelmed with emotions for our players,” coach Kevin O’Sullivan said in a release on Tuesday night. “They’re the ones that put in all the hard work and have to juggle the classroom and all that type of thing… I’m just really happy for them.”
While O’Sullivan received contributions from nearly everyone on the roster this season, it’s hard to imagine UF going as far as it did without Friday night ace Alex Faedo and closer Michael Byrne.
Faedo, who was drafted 18th overall by the Detroit Tigers earlier this month, went 9-2 with a 2.26 ERA in 123.2 innings pitched during his junior campaign. The Tampa native was especially on point during the NCAA Tournament, where he posted 44 strikeouts and a 0.33 ERA in his five starts on the mound.
Byrne, on the other hand, was electric for the Gators out of the back end of their bullpen. The 6-foot-2 right-hander registered a 1.67 ERA and a single-season program-record 19 saves.
“Their pitching has been the key to our success all season long,” O’Sullivan said on June 5 about the two players. “They’ve really stepped up and been big for us.”
It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Florida at the beginning of the year, however.
UF began the season 13-8 due to a woeful offensive start from its lineup. The Gators sat dead last in the SEC with a .240 team batting average and were tied for the fewest runs scored in the conference with 92.
Florida’s lack of production at the plate particularly hit rock bottom during the weekend of March 19 when it was swept by Auburn in a three-game series to open up league play. UF was outscored by the Tigers 22-9 over that three-day span, sending itself to the cellar of the SEC standings with an 0-3 record for the first time since 2009.
But like all great teams do, the Gators fought back.
Catcher/first baseman JJ Schwarz began to hit his stride offensively in the second half of the year by belting nine home runs after April 14, and senior outfielder Ryan Larson came out of nowhere to bat .339 during the conference season.
Florida ultimately won 26 of its final 32 games in 2017 behind its rejuvenated lineup and efficient pitching staff. The late season run not only earned the Gators a national championship, it earned them an SEC title as well.
UF went 16-3 over its last 19 contests against league opponents, going all the way from worst to first in the conference standings and clinching its 11th SEC regular season title in program history.
“There was a sense of togetherness in the locker room and knowing we’ll never give up,” O’Sullivan said on the team overcoming adversity. “We got progressively better. We figured out what we needed to do to score runs.”
Florida is losing Larson and relief pitcher Frank Rubio to graduation next season, and Faedo, Schwarz, Liput, shortstop Dalton Guthrie, reliever David Lee and catchers Mike Rivera and Mark Kolozsvary were also taken in the MLB Draft earlier this month.
However, a good portion of the Gators nucleus will be back, including Byrne, Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Nelson Maldonado, Jonathan India, Austin Langworthy, Tyler Dyson and Garrett Milchin.
While the future looks bright for Florida moving forward, O’Sullivan knows he can’t get ahead of himself. After 103 years, his program finally has its first national championship under its belt. For now, he just wants to enjoy it.
“I think Florida baseball is in great shape right now,” O’Sullivan said. “But I don’t want to talk about winning another one already. It’s hard enough.”