On March 8, 2020, Florida baseball won its 16th straight game over South Florida, 2-1, and sat atop the country in every national ranking. 454 days later, the Gators watched South Alabama beat them mercilessly out of their host regional, 19-1, for their 22nd and final loss of the season.
Florida’s freefall from domination to dismissal can’t be traced back to one game or player, but rather to the expectations the top ranking demanded, a tougher schedule and defensive regression. The combination spelled disaster, and the Gators never recaptured the magic of a year ago.
The college baseball world expected Florida to pick up where it left off a season ago, as the Gators sat atop each of the five preseason national polls. Twelve of the 14 coaches in the Southeastern Conference predicted the Gators to walk away with the conference crown, and all but one thought Florida would take the East division. UF returned eight of their nine position starters and all but one of its 14 pitchers and brought in D1 Baseball’s No. 6 recruiting class. D1 Baseball’s Aaron Fitt called the Gators the most talented roster in the country.
Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan preached in a press conference the day before the season opener against Miami for his team to stay focused and not expect to win every game, but as the dust settled over the season-ending South Alabama rout, O’Sullivan acknowledged his team didn’t respond optimally under the weight of conjecture.
“Maybe we could have done a better job of handling the expectations early on then we did,” O’Sullivan said, “and that falls on me.”
This season was the fourth time Florida earned the title of unanimous No. 1 since 2012 and the first time they failed to advance to the College World Series in Omaha with the moniker. The 2019 Vanderbilt Commodores are the only Baseball America preseason No. 1 to win the College World Series the past 16 seasons.
Judging by their opponents’ records each of the past two years, a more difficult strength of schedule might be one culprit behind the Gators’ regression. The seven programs UF faced in its 16-game tear to open the 2020 season combined for a 56-58-1 (0.491) record before the suspension of play, and those same teams went 171-205 (0.455) in 2021.
Florida’s season ended without a single game against an SEC opponent, something O’Sullivan said he didn’t ignore.
“I think there’s a lot of unknowns still,” O’Sullivan said before the season. “We have a lot of players and pitchers that haven’t excelled in our league yet so I think we still have a lot of question marks.”
In 2021, the 24 teams Florida played against amassed a combined record of 767-588 (0.566) before the College World Series began. The team faced six of Baseball America’s final top 25 teams, including each of the top three and five of the top 10, and 14 of the last 16 teams they faced finished with a winning record.
Before their conference schedule began in 2021, the Gators were 13-5 with a trio of one-run losses before they closed 25-17 the rest of the way. Hot starts being cooled by conference foes isn’t unheard of, even for the Gators. In 2019, Florida sat 14-5 with five double-digit victories before its SEC slate began but won just 20 of its final 41 games and bowed out to Dallas Baptist in regionals.
Florida’s largest regression in terms of concrete play and statistics came courtesy of its gloves. The Gators’ .984 fielding percentage from 2020 would have paced the nation this year, but they instead fumbled their way to an SEC-worst .968 fielding percentage, only enough for 147th in the country. They nearly doubled their errors from 0.589 to 1.167 per game and led the SEC with 70 errors, which created an average of 0.7 unearned runs.
Fingers could be pointed everywhere, with Kendrick Calilao the only error-free starter for the Gators, but a lot of the miscues involved the same offenders. Infielders Josh Rivera and Colby Halter committed 13 and 11 errors, respectively, which marked the third time since 2012 that multiple Florida fielders made double-digit mistakes. Eight Gators perpetrated at least four errors, the first time that many have done so since 2008.
Rivera said his biggest problem early on involved overcoming mental hurdles, and he committed six errors in Florida’s first ten games.
“That’s been one of my big struggles this year,” Rivera said April 6 after a victory over Stetson and his ninth error in 24 games, “just being in my head too much.”
The Gators committed 21 blunders in their final 16 games, and had over twice as many games with two or more miscues (7) as games without an error (3) in that stretch. Florida committed multiple errors in 20 of its 60 games, two more than any SEC team, and three or more errors in six games.
The Gators allowed an unearned run in 23 of their 60 games and multiple free runs 13 times. Half of their six single-run losses included an unearned run.
A season ago, Florida offered a 2.41 team earned run average (ERA) and eight pitchers, including weekend starters Hunter Barco and Tommy Mace, boasted ERAs under 2.00. Fitt considered the Gators’ pitching staff elite before the season began, praising their depth and saying they could be the best in college baseball.
Instead, Florida’s 2021 ERA ballooned, nearly doubling to 4.38 with five averages north of 6.60. Barco and Mace both inflated their averages above 4.00, and the two combined for just four scoreless outings the entire season. Out of Florida’s 10 healthy returning pitchers, only Jack Leftwich and David Luethje lowered their total from a season ago.
Opposing batting average rose from .207 to .248, and Florida surrendered nearly an extra hit-and-a-half every time it took the field. The team’s walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP) inflated right along with the team ERA, jumping from 1.06 to 1.29, and opposing on-base percentage rose from .282 to .323.
Florida’s foes found an additional 0.56 extra-base hits a contest to boost opposing slugging percentage from .294 to .383 and struck out two less times per game. The changes sound small on a game-by-game basis, but across a 60-game season, Florida was left to contend with about 85 extra hits, roughly 34 of which went for extra bases, and struck out 120 less batters than their 2020 projections.
The struggles reached a crescendo after South Carolina swept the Gators March 26-28. Florida pitchers let up 14 runs, 20 hits and 16 walks in the three games, including a 14th-inning walk-off loss in the series opener and five home runs in the final game. The following series, O’Sullivan shook up his weekend rotation for the first time in 2021, choosing to lead with junior Franco Aleman and sophomore Christian Scott rather than Mace and Leftwich.
“I drove home from South Carolina and sat on it, slept on it Sunday night, and made the decision” O’Sullivan said.
The move paid dividends in the first game with a 4-1 victory over Ole Miss, but the team’s ERA only marginally fell to 4.71 in SEC play while its WHIP rose to 1.33. Mace returned to his starter role but could only offer a 5.49 ERA against the SEC, while Alemanfinished 1-3 with a 5.74 ERA in conference games.
The lack of pitching prowess combined with the fielding woes generated an extra 2.3 runs per game opposed to a season ago. For comparison, 11 of Florida’s 2021 losses came by two runs or less.
Florida, despite regressions on the mound and in the field, didn’t lose any steps at the plate from a season ago. Its batting average and slugging percentage remained within one hundredth of the 2020 totals, and the on-base percentage remained exactly .386. Florida scored eight or more runs 25 times and only struck out on 24.7% of its at-bats compared to 27.8% a year ago.
Florida smacked 38 hits and drove in 22 runs in its opening series against Miami, but won just once.
“The offense did their job,” O’Sullivan said after the February 21 loss cemented the Hurricanes’ series comeback.
The offense continued its hot start to begin the season, with double-digit hits in 12 of the team’s first 16 games and five or more runs in all but two contests before SEC games began.
The conference competition was steeper, with half of Baseball America’s top 10 in the SEC, and UF’s offensive fire smoldered slightly. Team leaders Nathan Hickey and Jacob Young, who both batted north of .315 on the season, connected on just .263 and .276 clips, respectively, in conference games and the team’s strikeout rate hiked up to 28.2%.
Five of Florida’s six games with one run scored or less came in the final month of the season, and it scored more than four runs in only three of its final 13 games.
The 2021 Gators were mercurial and had flashes of the success they saw a year ago resurfacing with their bats and within three win streaks of five or more games. Across the full season, however, their pitching and fielding struggles against stronger competition held them down as the Gators failed to advance to the College World Series for a second consecutive competition, South Alabama washing away their Omaha dreams in front of their eyes.
Contact Ryan Haley at email@example.com. 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.