OMAHA, Neb. –– The Florida Gators are still here. They are the weeds in your garden, the gnats on your patio and the clouds in Omaha skies this week. They’re not going away. Not yet, anyway.
Never mind the six losses in seven games at the end of the regular season and SEC tournament; a skid that had the masses so worried, first baseman JJ Schwarz felt it necessary to tweet out reassurance: “R-E-L-A-X.” That went up on May 26, the day after the Gators were blown out of the SEC tournament by LSU 11-0.Never mind being taken to the limit by Florida Atlantic in the regional and Auburn in the super regional. Remember how the Gators finally got rid of Auburn? By homering off the poor right fielder’s glove in the 11th inning?
Never mind the opening loss here in Omaha to Texas Tech, when the Red Raiders beat Brady Singer the day after he was named national player of the year.
Never mind the occasional wayward defense. The Gators went through Omaha last June without a single unearned run, not committing an error in their final 50 innings. They had three unearned runs in their first six innings this year.
Now they face the demanding and exhausting life in the losers’ bracket. And as they held off Texas Tech 9-6 Thursday night in their latest moment of truth, the message seemed clear enough — the defending national champions and No. 1 seed will be carried off this stage with their teeth marks on the bracket. This a team that is now 7-0 in NCAA tournament elimination games in the past two years.
“We still have a lot of guys in the lineup from last year and I think that carried over to the mentality this year,” left fielder Austin Langworthy said. “We know what we have to do to survive and advance. That’s the mentality we have right now. That’s all we can do.”
The Gators will play Arkansas Friday night, as this College World Series has turned into an SEC-a-palooza. Four teams are left, three from the conference. “When we started looking at the bracket before we got out here,” coach Kevin O’Sullivan said, “figured it would be probably a point in time we were going to play them.”
Arkansas and Mississippi State are the 2-0 teams, but Florida is getting pretty hard to dismiss. Singer will be starting, against an Arkansas lineup that has the highest batting average in the CWS. The Razorbacks can afford a loss. The Gators can’t.
“We’d like to be in the driver’s seat. We’re not,” Schwarz said. “Our backs are against the wall. I think we’ve shown all year that we really respond well when our backs are against the wall.”
So where'd they get this knack for survival?
“It starts with the guys that Sully recruits,” Schwarz said. “He definitely picks out a certain kind of guy he wants on the team. You come to this school knowing that you’ve got to be a grinder. We’ve got a bunch of grinders on this team."The grinders Thursday included starter Jack Leftwich, a freshman wobbling through the first two innings, needing 54 pitches to get by. And then, just when you wondered when it would all fall apart for him, he turned into a strike machine, needing only 40 pitches to make it through the next four innings, with only 10 of them balls. “I think the reason I was struggling was just because I was nibbling and not attacking the hitters. I was like kind of pitching scared,” he said.
But not for long.
Another grinder was Jonathan India, who showed the Gators can still play small ball if necessary, as they did last year when they went 5-1 in Omaha while hitting .222. Their first run came Thursday when India walked, went to second on a wild pitch, stole third, and scored on another wild pitch. They had the lead for good in the fourth inning, and still didn’t have a hit yet.
And Schwarz, without a home run since May 12 as he labored to recover from a broken bone in his right hand, having to reacquire his timing in the middle of a College World Series. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” he said. He hit one out Thursday for two runs -- the 10th consecutive game with a Florida homer. These Gators are different one one way than last year. In 2017, they hit 53 home runs with 27 sacrifice bunts for the season. This year, they’ve hit 100 home runs with nine sacrifice bunts all season.
R-E-L-A-X— JJ Schwarz (@usetheschwarz22) May 26, 2018
And closer Michael Byrne, coming out of the bullpen for the third time in this series, with the arm that can’t afford to get tired. “It would have been nice not to use him,” O’Sullivan said.
They all grinded on Thursday night with elimination staring them in the face. "We played Gator baseball. We hit the way we know how to hit and we pitched the way we know how to pitch,” India said. “We just compete. We have each other’s backs. I think that’s how we won last year. We have a lot of heart on this team.”
Doesn’t sound like they’re ready to leave soon, does it?