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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Florida prepares to face LSU in 2017 National Championship rematch

Kevin O’Sullivan and the Gators make their fifth appearance in the College World Series finale

Gators freshman Cade Kurland throws during Florida's 10-0 victory against Vanderbilt Friday, May 12, 2023.
Gators freshman Cade Kurland throws during Florida's 10-0 victory against Vanderbilt Friday, May 12, 2023.

It began with a walk-off, 6-5 victory against the Virginia Cavaliers. Then the Gators escaped self-inflicted defeat against Oral Roberts after head coach Kevin O’Sullivan was forced to pull All-SEC closer Brandon Neely after an inadvertent sixth mound visit. 

UF punched its ticket to the championship series in the bottom of the ninth inning against Texas Christian. Now, the team prepares for possibly its biggest test of the year: The Louisiana State Tigers.

The Gators take on LSU in the NCAA College World Series finale beginning this Saturday in Omaha, Nebraska. 

LSU has faced challenges of its own. The Tigers made their way out of the loser’s bracket and walked-off No. 1 Wake Forest in a winner-take-all matchup Thursday which took extra innings to decide. 

“Their program is in great hands right now with a great coach in Jay Johnson,” UF senior catcher BT Riopelle said. “They play with a lot of passion and a lot of fire.” 

The Tigers are led by two of the nation’s best college baseball players and Golden Spikes Award finalists Dylan Crews and Paul Skenes. 

Crews holds an astounding .423 batting average and is top ten in the nation in on-base percentage and on-base plus slugging. 

Skenes has been arguably the best pitcher in college baseball this season. The junior right-hander transferred to LSU after two seasons with Air Force and has stifled opposing offenses all season. He has a 1.69 ERA on the mound and leads the nation with an all-time Southeastern Conference record 209 strikeouts.

The Tigers will be without Skenes though in the first game after he threw 120 pitches against Wake Forest in the semifinal round, whereas Florida’s top two pitches — right-handed aces Brandon Sproat and Hurston Waldrep — will be available.

Sproat has strung together four consecutive quality starts in the NCAA tournament and Waldrep has held opposing offenses to two runs and tossed 37 strikeouts across 21 innings in his last three starts.

The Gators’ starting pitching and bullpen has led the way all throughout their tournament run as the offense has struggled at times.

Florida’s offense is built upon power hitting, it's what O’Sullivan called the recipe for success in the Southeastern Conference. Though the offense has found little room to operate throughout its run in Omaha because of consistent winds that haven’t worked in the favor for either team.

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“The wind has played a huge factor,” O’Sullivan said. “It was suffocating. It’s like every ball that’s hit in the air was an out… You have to have the ability to manufacture runs in different ways.”

The Gators entered the College World Series scoring eight runs per game. Their production has shrunk in half to just four per game since arriving in Omaha. Regardless, 10 of the 14 total runs have resulted from UF home runs. 

LSU similarly scores around 8-9 runs per game and has only surpassed five runs once in the five contests it has played in Omaha. 

When the two teams last faced one another in 2022, the Tigers won the series and took two of three games on the Gators’ home field. Sproat was unable to make it out of the third inning in the second game and surrendered five runs. UF’s bullpen also combined for a 12.00 ERA throughout the series.

The Gators hope to replay the outcome from 2017’s National Championship round. Florida won in two games to hoist its first national championship in program history. LSU has won five of its last six CWS finals appearances, the only loss being in 2017 to Florida.

Game one of the championship series begins Saturday at 7 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.

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Luke Adragna

Luke Adragna is a third-year journalism student and the Florida Gators football reporter at The Alligator. He is a cat ethusiast and completes the NYT Daily Mini in less than a minute each day.

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