From wire-to-wire this season Florida has been the best team in the country, across all three phases: hitting, pitching and defense. At the halfway point of the SEC season, the Gators (12-3 conference record) currently hold a three-game lead in the SEC East over Georgia (9-6) and Vanderbilt (9-6), and are two games ahead of West division leader Arkansas (10-5).With five series remaining on the Gators' schedule, the question becomes: what, if anything, can stop their path to winning back-to-back SEC regular season titles? It would be just the third time in program history the Gators went back-to-back (1981-82, 2010-11), but it's not impossible anymore.
Here are the five toughest tests the Gators will face in each series if they want their 15th overall SEC regular season crown:
April 19-21 at Kentucky: Sean Hjelle
All-time series record: Florida leads 131-67-1; 2017 result: Florida won series 2-1
The Gators will face one of the best starting pitchers on their slate in Kentucky’s Sean Hjelle on Thursday night, in the first game of the three-game series with the Wildcats in Lexington.
Kentucky’s 6-foot-11 ace is 2-0 in his career against Florida, allowing only one earned run through 6.2 innings pitched. Last year in Gainsville, Hjelle pitched 5.2 innings allowing six hits, three runs (one earned), while striking out five in a 12-4 Wildcats win. As a freshman, when he was primarily Kentucky’s closer, Hjelle picked up the win in relief after the Wildcats bested the Gators, 5-4, in 10 innings.
Thursday’s showdown between Hjelle and the Gators’ Brady Singer will be one of the best regular season matchups of the year. Florida’s offense ranks eighth overall in runs scored (290) while Kentucky is right behind in ninth (289). This one has potential to be an instant classic.
April 26-28 vs. Auburn: Casey Mize
All-time series record: Auburn leads 131-113-2; 2017 result: Auburn won series 3-0
How’s this for Florida: In back-to-back series, the Gators have to face Hjelle and Auburn’s Casey Mize, both of whom – along with Singer and Jackson Kowar – will be in the conversation for SEC Pitcher of the Year. In game two of the Tigers’ regular-season series sweep over Florida last year, Mize out-dueled Singer allowing five hits, one run (unearned) while striking out eight over seven innings of work.
This year, Mize has been one of the best pitchers in the nation and through nine starts is 7-1 with a 2.00 earned run average. He's allowed just 14 runs over 63 innings with an astonishing 86:4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s also holding opposing batters to a .164 BA against, and has tossed two complete games, including a shutout over Northeastern back on March 9.
While the Tigers swept the Gators in the regular season last year, Florida got its revenge with a 5-4 win in the second round of the 2017 SEC tournament. Auburn started red-hot, and its 6-9 start in SEC hides how good the Tigers really are.
May 4-6 at Texas A&M: The Aggies’ big pitching staff
All-time series record: Texas A&M leads 10-5; 2017 result Florida won series 3-0
While a lot can change before the rematch of last year's SEC Tournament Championship Game, as it currently stands right now, a clash between Florida’s offense and Texas A&M’s pitching staff should be an awesome series for college baseball fans. Through April 18th, Florida’s offense ranks first in the SEC in runs scored (290) and total bases (670), and second in hits (393) and home runs (58). Meanwhile, the Aggies’ staff ranks first in the conference in team ERA (2.82) and earned runs allowed (107).
Florida third baseman Jonathan India has been dominant from the jump with .438/.562/.860 splits, 53 hits, 12 home runs and 31 RBI. J.J. Schwartz, and Will Dalton have been two other big power bats in the Gators' lineup, and will be tested against the Aggies' startersi including John Doxakis, Mitchell Kilkenny and Stephen Kolek, and a deep bullpen headlined by closer Nolan Hoffman.
May 11-13 vs. Georgia: Stopping Keegan McGovern and Michael Curry
All-time series record: Florida leads 187-106-1; 2017 result: Florida won series 3-0
About the Bulldogs this season: Georgia was picked to finish fifth in the SEC East, yet is currently tied for second with Vanderbilt, trailing only the Gators in the standings.
Much of Georgia’s success this season can be credited to its balanced lineup, led by left fielder Keegan McGovern and designated hitter Michael Curry. At the halfway point of the SEC schedule, Curry (37) and McGovern (36) lead the Bulldogs in RBI, while five players have at least 24. Front to back, the Gators’ pitching staff probably have the best stuff among any team in the conference, but if they aren’t careful Georgia is capable of putting up double-digit runs on any given night.
Worth noting that, through April 18 the Bulldogs are currently 19-4 in Athens but just 6-7 on the road. The series May 11-13 is in Gainesville.
May 17-19 at Mississippi State: How will the Gators end their season?
All-time series record: Florida leads 65-46; 2017 result: Florida won only matchup in SEC tournament
After back-to-back 40+ wins seasons, Mississippi State finds itself in danger of falling below .500 in conference play for the first time since 2015, and only the second time since the 2012 season. The Bulldogs currently are tied for last in the SEC with a 5-10 mark in conference play, with series remaining against Arkansas, Texas A&M, Alabama, Kentucky and Florida.
Despite the slow start to conference play for Mississippi State, Jake Magnum Is still one of the best contact hitters in the SEC with a .353 average, 55 hits and 71 total bases through 36 games this season.
While sweeping any series in a conference like the SEC is difficult, the last time the Gators ended the regular season with a sweep was in 2008. It will be interesting to see how Florida looks in its final tune-up before postseason play.