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Thursday, March 04, 2021

Florida baseball has a shot at redemption after early 2019 exit

After a dominant 2020 campaign was cut short, preseason top-ranked Gators will finally get a chance to erase its loss at NCAA Regionals two years ago.

<p>Junior Tommy Mace registered a 1.67 ERA in four appearances during an abridged 2020 campaign</p>

Junior Tommy Mace registered a 1.67 ERA in four appearances during an abridged 2020 campaign

The day is June 2, 2019.

It’s just before 5:30 p.m. in Lubbock, Texas, on a warm, overcast evening. The wind that has blown the last few hours is starting to settle. Two years after winning the College World Series, the Florida Gators were eliminated from the NCAA Regional Tournament.

The 2019 season started with high expectations. Almost every season at Florida has, especially under coach Kevin O’Sullivan. The Gators were ranked No. 4 by Baseball America before the season got underway. The memories of 2017’s title run remained fresh on everyone’s minds.

However, the team was alarmingly young, with true freshmen accounting for more than a third of the roster.

“We thought we might have some learning curves with how young we might be and because we played so many freshmen, but we still thought it would be a pretty good year,” said Jacob Young, a freshman outfielder in 2019.

The season started well enough. The team won a series against Miami and defeated then-No. 6 Florida State with a jaw-dropping 20-run performance. As the schedule transitioned to conference play, the Gators held a 14-5 record. 

Florida then dropped five of its first six SEC games  — a splash of cold water that doused any momentum. The ship steadied from there, but the Gators would still finish the season with a 13-17 in-conference record. It was the team’s first losing record in the SEC since 2013 and its worst conference mark under O’Sullivan.

Still, all was not lost in the locker room. The Gators gained confidence after entering the SEC Tournament off a season-ending sweep over Missouri, according to Kirby McMullen, who now plays third base for Florida.

A 10th-inning loss to Texas A&M in the opening round of the SEC tournament led the Gators to the fateful Regional competition in Lubbock. The 3rd-ranked team in the four-squad bracket, Florida dropped its opening contest to the 2nd-seeded Dallas Baptist University Patriots, Florida beat Army to stay alive and force a rematch against DBU.

The elimination game against the Patriots started well but turned nightmarish in the top of the fourth inning. The Gators took the field defensively with a 2-0 lead but returned to the dugout nine runs later, now trailing by seven. Florida didn’t go down without a fight, bringing in six more runs and advancing a tying runner to third base in the bottom of the ninth for Young. 

Young grounded out. After four straight trips to Omaha, the Gators had their first Regionals exit since 2014.

“We knew we had our chance at Regionals,” Young said, “We played some good teams, we had a good chance, but we just kind of felt we came up a little short.”

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While Young said the freshmen were gutted for players who would never see the college field again, the seniors and draft prospects who would take their talents elsewhere, the focus of the younger end of the roster immediately shifted ahead.

“We had our year to learn and get experience, and we were ready to attack the next year and make up for some of the wrongdoings,” Young said.

To say the 2020 squad simply redeemed itself would be a monumental understatement. 

It was clear that something different was in the air around O’Sullivan’s squad. The talent and the work ethic were there but there was something else, too. The entire program shared a chip on its shoulder, a desire to make sure that what happened the year before was never repeated.

“All of the sophomores were going to be really ready,” Young said. “We were all really prepared and kind of wanted to show everyone that we’re no joke.”

The team came out of the gates blazing, winning its first 16 games including a sweep over then-No. 1 Miami. It reached the pole position on Baseball America’s rankings on February 24 and looked not only ready to erase the flaws of the 2019 postseason, but to make extra room in the trophy case as well.

Then the rest of the world intervened. The day before the Gators were scheduled to take on Georgia to open conference play, the NCAA canceled all remaining winter and spring championships due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Collegiate sports everywhere ground to a halt. 

The redemption Florida desired would have to be put on hold. This time, forces outside of their control risked both a chance at vindication and the bonds forged along the way.

“A lot of us were upset about the friendships that might have gotten cut short with kids supposed to be getting drafted and signing,”  McMullen said. “Obviously, a lot of that didn’t end up happening.”

The Gators’ losses from that top-ranked team were actually quite minuscule this offseason. Star pitchers Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich weren’t selected in a shortened MLB draft and chose to return to Gainesville for another run. Longtime staple Austin Langworthy didn’t return, but a vaunted recruiting class and transfer arm Franco Aleman added their names to the talent pool on a roster that somehow got even deeper.

As the new season draws closer, it appears the Gators will finally have an unobstructed path to redemption. The NCAA has conducted several championships already and seems to have a plan for hosting athletic competitions. The team now has a chance to prove that 16-1 start a year ago wasn’t a fluke.

“Since we didn’t get to do it last year, that motivation kind of crept forward into this fall,” Young said.

The opportunity in front of this Florida team isn’t lost on those in the locker room, especially those who were there that overcast June day in Lubbock.

Contact Ryan Haley at rhaley@alligator.org or follow him on Twitter at @ryan_dhaley

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Ryan Haley

Ryan Haley is a second-year journalism major with a sports & media specialization from Jacksonville, Florida. He grew up playing a bunch of different sports before settling on golf, following Rory McIlroy and all Philadelphia sports teams. He also loves all things fiction, reading, watching shows and movies and talking about whatever current story or character is in his head.


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