It started during the final conference weekend of last season. The Gators and Gamecocks went into the final weekend at 20-7 in conference play, set to decide the champion on the field in Columbia. Florida won the first two games to clinch the conference championship, and the South Carolina players were forced to sit in their dugout and watch an opponent dogpile on their field.
It didn’t sit well.
“Last year, it was tough to see their team dogpile on our field when they won the championship,” South Carolina ace left-hander Michael Roth said. “That was tough to see.”
The Florida players gladly would’ve traded that dogpile for the way South Carolina ended its season, with a dogpile on the mound at Rosenblatt Stadium to celebrate a national championship. The Gators watched on television after getting bounced from the College World Series in two games last season.
“Last year, we were able to take two-of-three from them, but they got the last laugh,” Florida catcher Mike Zunino said. “They got to hold the national championship trophy up.”
The two met during the second weekend of conference play this year. The Gamecocks came into the weekend ranked No. 4 in the country, while the No. 1 ranked Gators played host.
South Carolina pounded Florida starter Brian Johnson to earn a 9-2 win in the series opener before the teams split two one-run games on Saturday and Sunday. The Gamecocks left Gainesville with a series win.
“They got the best of us there,” Florida outfielder/first baseman Preston Tucker said. “But then again, it’s a new series. It starts 0-0 here. And whoever takes two out of three here is going to be the best team in the nation.”
HANDLING THE OFF DAYS: The benefit of being 3-0 is that Florida has plenty of time to rest, never having to fight their way out of the loser’s bracket. When they eliminated Vanderbilt on Saturday, it meant the Gators didn’t need to waste any more pitching.
The only possible negative is that it keeps them from establishing a rhythm. Usually when Florida is on the road, they stay in a hotel for three nights and play games every day. In Omaha, they have to stay mentally into the tournament despite sometimes have three days off.
“When we go to practice for a few hours a day, we want to stay focused,” Tucker said. “We all share a common goal, which is to win the College World Series. You’re not going to be able to accomplish that unless you stay focused at all times.”
Most players have their families out in Omaha, and they have spent plenty of time with them at dinner and exploring the city. Players have taken trips to the Henry Doorly Zoo and eaten at some local restaurants to keep their minds from being overwhelmed.
The most important factor is rest. O’Sullivan wants the players to get a few hours off their feet each day after practice.
“We’re trying to rest up,” Zunino said. “(We) enjoy our off days, but we have to rest because we have a bigger goal in mind.”
ZUNINO GETS A NEW BAT: Zunino made national headlines during Friday’s win over Vanderbilt when he broke a metal bat. Vanderbilt reliever Mark Lamm got a mid-90s fastball in on Zunino’s hands, and the bat snapped into two pieces, with the barrel flying into the stands.
“It was a little depressing,” Zunino said. “I had that bat almost the whole year.”
With the numbers Zunino has put up in the College World Series, a new bat might not be the worst thing. The SEC Player of the Year is 2-for-12 with a bunt single and an infield single.
The bat shattering could help turn his Omaha performance around.
“It was really weird seeing a barrel fly off a bat like that,” Zunino said. “I got a new one, taped it up and just tried to break it in.”
OPPOSITE PITCHING DEPTH: Florida winning on Friday with Alex Panteliodis on the mound against the Commodores gives the Gators an advantage on the mound heading into the championship series. Florida now has its pitching rotation in the order it wants, throwing Hudson Randall in the first game and Karsten Whitson in the second.
South Carolina used its ace Michael Roth in Friday’s win over Virginia, so the earliest he will be able to come back in Tuesday. Closer Matt Price threw 95 pitches Friday, so he isn’t expected to be available until Tuesday either.
That sets up a matchup between South Carolina freshman Forrest Koumas (6-1, 3.07) and Randall.
Randall threw a complete game against South Carolina March 26 in Gainesville, allowing just one unearned run in a 2-1 Florida win.
“I see him a lot in my sleep,” South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner said about Randall. “Hudson Randall has been spectacular. I think he (threw a complete game) against us in the 90s (pitches) that day. He’s fun to watch. He’s a guy that looks to me that his velocity has probably increased a little bit, but his pitchability is off the charts.”
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