College World Series: Gators clamp down with pitching, defense as Florida wins first NCAA title
OMAHA, Neb. – Maybe it was just Florida’s time.
True, it took 71 College World Series for the Gators to win one – on their third trip to the Finals.
Then again, it took 68 NCAA Tournaments for Florida to win a national basketball championship -- on their third trip to the Final Four in 2006. And someone had been naming national football champions for 127 years before the Gators finally grabbed one of those, in 1996.
So Billy Donovan and Steve Spurrier, time to welcome Kevin O’Sullivan to the first-timers club. “This means the world to me,” he was saying Tuesday night. And wasn’t that an interesting journey his Gators took to the podium? “Hasn’t been pretty,” he mentioned the other day.
The new national champions went 11-8 in March. They lost to Arkansas in the SEC Tournament, 16-0. Apparently, the Razorbacks missed an extra point.
They lost to Bethune-Cookman in the regional, a team they had beaten all 31 meetings before.
They provided the pitches for five Wake Forest home runs in one game in the super regional game, including the walk-off winner in the 11th.
And the 9-2 loss to TCU here the other night was no thing of beauty, either, too, pushing the Gators to the wall.
“I think our backs have been against the wall the whole year to be honest with you,” O’Sullivan said that night. “Nothing comes easy to this team this year.”
Florida hit .222 in the College World Series, the lowest for a champion in 45 years. Before that four-run wad of insurance in the eighth inning Tuesday, the Gators had scored 19 runs in six games.
As it turned out, did any of the above matter? No. Everything was beautiful on the last night.
“People always talked about our offense is not always so good, but at the end of the day we know who we are,” catcher Mike Rivera said. “We’re not going to score 10 runs, but we’ll find a way.”
Usually with whomever was throwing the baseball. The handiwork of Florida’s starters in the CWS: 39.1 innings, nine runs, 56 strikeouts. The only other STAFF here that had that many Ks was LSU. Throw out that TCU thumping, and the Gators' staff allowed nine runs in five games. They threw 46 shutout innings out of 54.
TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said it the second day of the tournament: “They just smother you with outstanding pitching.” It would stay that way until there was nobody left for Florida to strikeout. Alex Faedo, with his 22 Ks in 14.1 scoreless innings, was an easy call for Most Outstanding Player, the fourth pitcher in five years to win it.
And to make life even more miserable for opposing offenses, the Gators did not commit one error their last five games. Not one. “It just makes it more difficult on the other team that you’re not giving them more outs,” O’Sullivan said. “They’re working with 27 outs.”
Which were not enough most days against Florida’s pitchers.
So ended a College World Series that managed to pair thunder at the plate with lightning on the mound. There were 23 home runs in Omaha this year. In the first four years of the CWS at TD Ameritrade Park from 2011-14, there were 25 combined. LSU’s eight were only two fewer than the entire field hit last June.
But there were also 266 strikeouts, the most since 1958.
There were two shutouts, both belonging to the Gators. There were four one-run games. Two triples, but no triple plays. No extra innings. No walk-off winners. A CWS record 357,646 people who came to watch it all.
The Florida Gators are the Kings of College Baseball! pic.twitter.com/kSoJVbCQDM— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 28, 2017
Florida entered this season with only two seniors. The Gators came to Omaha with 18 one-run victories, but an understanding of how fragile that way of baseball life is. Their last five defeats here had all been one-runners. Elimination by frustration. "There's such a fine line between winning and losing out here," O'Sullivan said.
Florida was about to find the right side of the line. Before the CWS started, O’Sullivan met the media with a nick under his eye. He said his four-year-old son had something to do with it. But what?
“It’s a long story,” he said.
So was the journey of his Gators. But the road traveled was worth every bump, when you're the last team standing at the end.