Tommy Mace bellowed as he retired the final Rebel Friday night. The home crowd cheered the series-opening victory over Ole Miss.
The scene stood in stark contrast to the previous weekend at Founders Park for the Gators, when they dropped all three games to South Carolina. It was their first sweep at the hands of the Gamecocks since 2006.
The gap between the two weekends, furthered by a series win over the Rebels Sunday, reaffirmed that Florida’s problem doesn’t concern its ceiling. It concerns how often they reach it.
An 18-9 record in early April shouldn’t tempt the panic button, and Florida remains in prime position to make a run to Omaha. But for a team atop every preseason national poll that received all but two votes to win the conference, it’s been unsatisfying at times.
What’s been the bane of Florida’s games early on? What can the team hang its hat on? Here’s a closer examination.
The Gators fielding didn’t regress to the mean in 2021. It regressed to mediocrity.
A year ago, Florida committed 10 errors in 17 games, and no Gator earned more than two. In 2021, Florida totaled 31 errors in the first 27 games, an increase of 0.56 miscues a game.
Shortstop Josh Rivera, named second-team All-SEC in the coaches’ poll, committed eight himself for a team-low .904 fielding rate. Only Jud Fabian and Kendrick Calilao remain perfect in the field. So far, the Gators surrendered 20 unearned runs.
The team’s fielding percentage slipped to .970, 130th in the country and directly between South Alabama and Loyola Marymount (CA). The team’s .984 average from 2020 would rank seventh.
One could make a compelling argument that Florida’s strength in 2020 lay late in the game on the mound. Three Gator relievers pitched more than 10 innings with ERAs of 1.20 or lower. The bullpen combined for five saves, an 8-0 record and a 1.76 ERA in more than 76 innings. Florida threw 22.2 consecutive scoreless innings in relief from Feb. 29 to March 6.
So far in 2021, Florida’s relievers combined for 44 earned runs in 110 innings of work, discounting Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich’s closing efforts against Ole Miss. A 3.60 ERA and a 3-4 record feel night and day from the dominance a year ago.
Disasters and pitfalls snag Florida’s pitchers more than a year ago. The Gators allowed 25 home runs in the first 27 games, with 29.9% of surrendered hits for multiple bases. Their extra-base hits allowed rose from 1.94 to 2.48 per game, and opposing slugging percentage flew from .294 to .367.
The team’s ERA inflated from 2.41 to 3.86 and the opposing batting average rose from .207 to .237. Florida’s strikeouts per nine innings fell from 10.72 to 9.34. The margins sound small on paper, but the regression on the mound and in the field means the Gators yielded 4.70 runs per game so far this season.
Florida didn’t regress at the plate. In fact, their 2021 numbers are eerily identical to a season ago.
The Gators batted .277 thus far, a marginal decline from their .285 average in 2020. They increased their slugging percentage from .447 to .451, and their on-base percentage dipped from .383 to .366. They collected an average of 7.04 runs and 9.78 hits per game so far, within striking distance of their 7.24 runs and 10.06 hits per game in 2020.
They’ve struck out less, too. They failed to make contact on 27.8% of their at bats a year ago compared to 24.9% of at bats in 2021.
The offense delivered consistently this season as well. They scored 10 or more runs five times against six games with five runs or less. At least five Gators reached base safely in every game this season, and they tallied eight or more hits in 20 games.
A trio of true freshmen impressed early at the plate. Infielder Colby Halter started all but two games and batted .297. His 21 RBIs rank third on the team. Outfielder Sterlin Thompson batted .274 in 21 starts with a team-high three triples. Infielder Jordan Carrion recorded 14 hits in 20 games, including his first home run Sunday.
The class of 2020 drew attention on the mound, too. Carrion’s allowed four hits and no runs in 6.1 innings this year, performing well enough for head coach Kevin O’Sullivan to say he could grow into a closer role. Right hander Chase Centala threw a scoreless four innings in his first start against North Florida, and Timmy Manning permitted just two hits in 5.2 innings of relief.
Manning’s first start against Stetson, five earned runs in under two innings, left much to be desired. But the newest wave of Gators already show promise.
As Florida sits exactly halfway through the 2021 season, it can take pride in its offense and newest additions. However, if the Gators want to leap from fifth in the SEC East to national championship contenders, it’s obvious what holds them back.
Contact Ryan Haley at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @ryan_dhaley
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.