Drastic turnaround on the mound
By Joseph Salvador
Before anyone took the mound in 2020 for the Florida Gators, junior pitcher Jack Leftwich made it clear that this year things were going to be different.
“I think everyone’s kind of pissed off about last year on the pitching end, because the hitters did really good, but it was kind of on our shoulders,” he said at preseason media availability in January.
The Orlando native referenced UF’s cumulative 5.37 ERA — second-to-last in the SEC in 2019 — as reason for that anger. Florida’s poor pitching contributed to its 34-26 record — the first time UF hadn’t won 40 games since 2013.
That anger and embarrassment carried over into the shortened 2020 season where you’d need a world-class detective to find a weakness on this team. The Gators were the No. 1 team in the country before the COVID-19 pandemic ended their season prematurely.
Despite the heartbreaking circumstances, Leftwich and the rest of the team had some fun with the timing of the pandemic.
“Some of us joked we wish this would’ve happened last year,” Leftwich said. “That’s not just how life works out. It is what it is.”
UF’s 2.41 ERA this year ranked fifth in the SEC and 16th nationally. And it began with Leftwich and junior Tommy Mace.
The two junior right-handers started on Fridays and Saturdays for UF this season and were seen as leaders on the team.
Their experience was an invaluable asset that the Gators lacked last year, according to both pitchers.
Mace, who had a 1.67 ERA and a 3-0 record, says that he was not surprised at all with how the pitching staff drastically improved this season. When asked what helped the pitchers bounce back, his answer revolved around the mental aspect of the game.
“Being uncomfortable while we’re practicing because you’re going to be uncomfortable during a game,” Mace said. “When you have to battle through adversity, that’s where you tell what kind of player you are.”
Mace and Leftwich also raved about the bullpen’s emergence and specifically named sophomore Ben Specht.
“He was like a bulldog out there,” Leftwich said.
Specht — a reliable closer who led the team with three saves — had a 0.75 ERA that contributed to the bullpen’s 1.76 mark through its 17 games.
Other hurlers who had a hand in handicapping hitters were freshman Tyler Nesbitt (0.00), sophomore Christian Scott (1.20) and freshman Hunter Barco (1.40) who combined for 46 innings pitched.
Florida’s pitching staff truly rebounded on the mound in its limited action this year, but it will never know what could have been if given a full season.
Gators bats backed up dominant pitching
By Dylan O’Shea
UF’s hitters plagued opposing pitching staffs from the first windup of the season until COVID-19 cast a nuclear winter on the sports world.
Florida rode its stellar bats, behind exceptional pitching, to a 16-1 record to begin the 2020 campaign, the best start in program history.
The Gators collectively hit for a .285 batting average, 106 RBI, 21 home runs and a .386 OBP.
While UF’s batting average ranked in the middle of the SEC at eighth, Florida hitters notched timely knocks and greatly outpaced the .207, 42 RBI, eight home runs and .282 OBP put up by opponents.
And while Florida had an abundance of powerful arms to put up goose eggs and lessen the pressure placed on Gators hitters, the team fielded one of the SEC’s steadiest offenses behind sophomore outfielders Jud Fabian and Jacob Young, along with freshman catcher Nathan Hickey.
Fabian, Florida’s home run leader with five dingers through 17 games, was perhaps the team’s best all-around hitter in 2020, averaging a .294 clip and collecting a team-best 13 RBI to add to his home run total.
And where Fabian had flash, Young had SEC-best consistency. The table-setter collected a hit in every game he played in this season, finishing the shortened campaign with a .450 batting average (second-best in the SEC) and an 18-game hitting streak stretching back to last year.
The feat stands as the second-best hitting streak during coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s coaching tenure behind Jonathan India’s 24-game hitting streak in 2018.
Young said he didn’t pay much attention to it, however.
“It’s something I didn’t think about too much,” he said. “All of the coaches weren’t looking at that either.”
He said his main focus was getting the ball in play, even if that took laying down good bunts to help his team move runners across.
Hickey was Florida’s budding freshman before the season came to a screeching halt. While the power-hitting newcomer at the backstop experienced some minor growing pains to begin his first stint with the Gators, he got scorching hot over what ended up being Florida’s final seven games.
Jacksonville’s own hit .347 with six RBI and smacked a home run in four-straight games during that span.
Much like Young, Hickey said he wasn’t focused on streaks.
“Honestly, I was just looking for a ball to get a bat on,” he said.
For now, Young, Hickey and others will have lots of time to reflect on their accomplishments with the season now tragically cut short.
No SEC opponents. No post season. No Omaha.
Hickey said it’s all just more motivation to look forward to next season and gelling with the new squad.
And as for his own growth, Hickey said he gives it all up to guidance from his teammates.
“The guys above me,” he said. “I can’t thank them enough for all they did.”
UF’s shortened schedule provided lots of Ws
By Bryan Matamoros
There’s no telling how the 2020 campaign would have ended for Florida.
O’Sullivan and his team began the season on a 16-game winning streak before No. 19 Florida State spoiled UF’s perfect record with a 2-0 shutout victory on March 10.
Just two days later, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey announced that regular-season competition for teams in all sports on SEC campuses were suspended indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic. Ultimately, the SEC decided to cancel all regular season conference and non-conference competitions for the remainder of the 2019-20 athletic calendar.
UF’s promising start to the campaign came to an abrupt stop because of COVID-19, and it left baseball fans wondering how far the team could possibly go.
Would the Gators have capitalized on their early-season momentum and come home with a national title for just the second time in program history? Or would they sputter and miss the College World Series entirely like they did in 2019?
It’s impossible to say.
Although Florida’s regular season was trimmed by 38 games, the first 17 presented a number of matchups and moments that players won’t soon forget.
A glimpse of the orange and blue’s potential was seen in the opening-weekend series against Marshall. The Gators dismantled the Thundering Herd from Friday to Sunday, scoring 34 runs to Marshall’s 11, as Florida opened its season with a sweep for the sixth-straight time.
The games between UF and the Miami Hurricanes, on the other hand, were more action packed and emotional. It was also a strong benchmark of just how good both teams were at that stage of the year.
In 2019, UM traveled to Alfred A McKethan Stadium and pulled out a victory in the series opener before losing the next two games.
This time around, however, the Gators made sure to bring their brooms on the near five-hour drive to Mark Light Field in Coral Gables, Florida.
Then-No. 2 UF clinched its first road sweep of then-No. 3 UM since 2012, outscoring the Hurricanes 14-8 over the course of the weekend, but the games were much tighter than what the combined score indicated.
“It was so big for our guys to go out on the road and get that sweep and make a statement for ourselves,” sophomore right-hander Ben Specht said. “I think that was just a key point in the season where we knew we had something special.”
After starting in Game 1 and going pitch for pitch with Miami right-hander Brian Van Belle, junior right-hander Tommy Mace watched Game 2 from the dugout.
It was from that vantage point where Florida’s ace witnessed sophomore center fielder Jud Fabian come through in the clutch at the top of the ninth. Fabian stepped up to the plate and rattled off a game-tying double down the left-field line to bring home sophomore first baseman Kris Armstrong and force extra innings, with the Gators eventually coming out on top.
“Those games (against Miami) are always, always like that. They’ve been like that for years,” Mace said. “Jud (Fabian) hitting that ball in the ninth is probably one of my top-five experiences at Florida.”