Florida began the 2019 season as a consensus top-10 team. However, the Gators limped into the postseason and were quickly eliminated from the Regionals. Now, with a No. 1 recruiting class in tow, UF is back in the top 10 with a No. 4 preseason ranking and returns talent on the mound and at the plate.
Rebounding on the mound
A team’s pitching staff is a good measuring stick to predict where it will end up during a lengthy and grueling baseball season — which explains Florida’s worst performance from the mound since 2008 last year.
The Gators’ disappointing 34-26 season in 2019 was thanks in no small part to the team’s 5.37 ERA.
UF, a perennial threat to make a College World Series run every year, struggled mightily on the mound last season and had the second-worst ERA in the SEC — better than only South Carolina (5.51).
“Our pitching was just not good,” coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “It’s that simple.’’
Nevertheless, the Gators have found themselves ranked in the top 10 in multiple preseason polls largely because of a pitching staff filled with young talent and returning veterans.
Junior right-handers Tommy Mace (5.32 ERA) and Jack Leftwich (5.31) will start the season at the top of the rotation for UF but have chips on their shoulders before the opening pitch of the season has been delivered.
“I think everyone is kind of pissed off about last year on the pitching end,” Leftwich said.
He ended last season with 62 strikeouts in 62.2 innings but missed significant time due to a blister on his right hand.
The Orlando native didn’t make excuses because of the injury but will have something to prove in 2020.
Mace, the Friday night starter, started every weekend series for UF last season and finished with an 8-5 record over 16 starts to go along with a team-high 74 strikeouts.
Sophomore Nick Pogue will be Florida’s No. 3 after posting a 1-1 record in 2019 with a 4.15 ERA and freshman Hunter Barco will also be an option for O’Sullivan.
The lefty from Jacksonville posted a 1.84 ERA and a 5-0 record in 38 innings in high school.
Junior lefty Jordan Butler (5.76) and sophomore David Luethje (3.86) will also see midweek starts with the possibility of relieving on the weekends as well.
Graduate transfer Trey Van Der Weide (4.29) from South Carolina-Upstate, junior Justin Alintoff (4.3) and sophomores Ben Specht (5.49) and Christian Scott (5.19) round out the bullpen for O’Sullivan.
The 13th-year Florida coach made it a point that his lineups and each of his pitchers’ roles will surely change as the season goes on and he has “no idea how it’s going to shake out.’’
Only time will tell if this pitching staff will live up to expectations or repeat a disappointing 2019.
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Gators to watch at the plate
The Gators’ bats have a chance to be electric this season.
No. 10 Florida will look to emulate last season’s potent offensive performances.
UF’s offense was ranked fourth in the SEC in 2019; often picking up the slack for an underperforming pitching staff.
During the 2019 season, the staff placed constant pressure on the offense. That pressure didn’t create diamonds, but it did produce one of the most resilient offenses that O’Sullivan said he’s seen.
Florida’s sluggers stormed back against early deficits time and time again over the final 11 games of 2019, posting seven-plus runs in each contest.
Returning hitters that can apply pressure to opponents’ pitching staffs this season are left fielder Austin Langworthy, center fielder Jud Fabian and first baseman Kendrick Calilao.
Langworthy is the only senior projected to suit up as an everyday starter in 2020. His 10 home runs in 2019 are the highest of any returning player, and he can provide key leadership to Florida’s 15 new faces.
Fabian posted a .232 batting average last season but was tied with Cory Acton for the team lead in walks with 28. Fabian also notched 26 RBI over his freshman campaign. He was the only Gator named to the coaches’ preseason All-SEC team.
Jacob Young, who posted a .311 batting average last season, has the ability to provide constant traffic on the basepaths for Florida.
When it comes to Calilao, youth didn’t prevent him from leading Florida in RBIs as a freshman with 49. He also hit a solid .276 to help spark the team’s offensive surge in 2019.
While these players are expected to be key contributors this spring, there’s no such thing as a foolproof plan in baseball. Some players go into slumps. Other players exceed expectations and become key cogs in the lineup down the stretch.
O’Sullivan said he knows Friday’s opening-day lineup won’t be the same at the end of the season.
“I’m hoping that some guys that are not in the lineup opening night understand the big picture,” he said. “But the bottom line is the lineup is not going to be the same at the end of the year as it is in the beginning. I’m just trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together to give us the best opportunities to win this weekend.”
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A look at UF’s slate of opponents
Since Alfred A. McKethan Stadium opened in 1988, the Gators have won 12 NCAA Regionals and eight Super Regionals in front of their home crowd.
Florida’s eye-popping record of 903-300 (.751) at the Mac has given the orange and blue faithful much to cheer about, too.
With construction of the Florida Ballpark set to be completed in June, however, time is running out for coach O’Sullivan and his players to provide their fans with unforgettable moments at McKethan Stadium.
The 2020 schedule gives No. 4 UF a chance to do just that, as it plays 33 games inside the friendly confines of its 32-year-old stadium for the last time before moving to its new one in 2021.
Florida’s home slate consists of five series against SEC opponents, including one against defending national champion No. 1 Vanderbilt in early May.
The Gators will also be hosting series against non-conference foes such as Marshall, Troy and South Florida. The rest of UF’s home contests are made up of in-state rivals and scattered throughout the schedule: Jacksonville (2), Florida A&M (2), Florida State (1), Stetson (1), North Florida (1), Florida Atlantic (1) and Bethune-Cookman (1).
Marshall will be the first of the aforementioned teams to take on the fourth-ranked Gators, as it travels to Gainesville on Friday for the first meeting in history between the two programs.
After opening the campaign against Marshall over the weekend, and a home and away with Jacksonville midweek, the Gators will make their way down south for a matchup with No. 5 Miami.
The Hurricanes headline Florida’s slate of away games, and it will be the first true test for O’Sullivan’s team. They won the series in 2019, 2-1.
UF’s much-anticipated showdowns against No. 12 FSU have three dates: March 10 in Gainesville, March 24 at a neutral site of Jacksonville and April 14 in Tallahassee.
Last season, the Gators came out victorious in each of the three games against the Seminoles, outscoring them by a 27-10 margin.
UF also has weekend series against No. 5 Georgia, No. 7 Arkansas, No. 8 Auburn and No. 25 Ole Miss.
Overall, Florida plays seven top-25 opponents throughout the season, so Gators fans across the nation will have plenty of opportunities to watch their team vie for its second ever national championship.
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