The senior was struggling. Poyner had allowed nine runs in his previous nine innings of work, wasn’t locating well and wasn’t missing many barrels. Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan wanted to get him back on the mound at the SEC Tournament, but the opportunity never presented itself.
He wasn’t used in the first two games, and O’Sullivan knew he needed to get the senior back on the mound. He thought hard about potentially starting Poyner, and he would have if South Florida were the opponent.
It may have only been two scoreless innings in the box score, but they were much bigger than that for Poyner’s future role in the bullpen this postseason.
“It felt good to be back out there,” Bobby Poyner said. “I just really needed to focus on keeping the ball down. The last couple outings, the ball was up, especially against Arkansas. That’s not going to work, so I made an adjustment and focused on keeping the ball down. It worked out for me today.”
Poyner and third baseman Josh Tobias are the only two players on the Florida team that have been to Omaha before. Both were freshmen on the team when the Gators went two-and-out from the College World Series in 2012, but the experience of going has them focused on helping the team get back.
After breaking a six-game NCAA Tournament losing streak on Friday, Poyner thinks this team can be the one that gets the program back.
“I think a lot of the guys have been able to learn from mistakes made in the past,” Poyner said. “The older guys are hungry to get back to playing well in the postseason and hopefully reaching the ultimate goal of winning a national championship. I think we’re more mature. The incoming freshmen, enough can’t be said about how well those guys have contributed to this team.”
PLAYING WELL AT THE RIGHT TIME: The Gators will take a seven-game winning streak into next weekend’s Super Regional against an opponent to be determined on Monday, although it will likely be Florida State unless the Seminoles lose twice to College of Charleston.
“Our guys are playing well at the right time,” O’Sullivan said. “I think if we can stay within ourselves and not get in our own way, we have a chance. We’ve had some ups and downs like everybody has during a long season like we play, but I do like the way we’re playing. I like the way we fought through adversity. Sure, I wish today wouldn’t have been as close, but I do think it helps us moving forward. We need pressure situations like that. We responded really well.”
The confidence for O’Sullivan comes in the way Florida won in the Gainesville Regional. The Gators won Friday’s opener in blowout fashion, pounding out 12 singles to keep the line moving. On Saturday against South Florida, the Gators broke out the power and hit a pair of two-run homers while running away with the win.
On Sunday, it was a “dogfight,” according to O’Sullivan. Florida had to battle through a pitcher’s duel to clinch the regional with a 2-1 win.
“We’ve shown the ability to win in a lot of ways,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve shown the ability to win with the long ball, we’ve shown the ability to win with our legs. As long as we pitch and play defense, we’re tough to beat.”
The Gators did make mistakes on Monday. Left fielder Harrison Bader and center fielder Buddy Reed botched a ball in left-center field in the first inning, turning a double into a triple. Josh Tobias was thrown out at third base for the first out of the sixth inning. O’Sullivan even admitted that trying to find mistakes after that from Sunday’s game was “nitpicking” because of how well Florida is playing.
“Our guys are fundamentally sound,” O’Sullivan said. “If you beat us, you’ve got to beat us. We don’t beat ourselves that often. If we can continue down that path, I like our chances.”
BADER TAKES OFF: O’Sullivan and his staff have used different tactics to get Bader started after he struggled at the end of the regular season. They moved him down in the order late in the regular season to take some pressure off him and let him come out of his funk.
“It really wasn’t helping him,” O’Sullivan said. “I figured, what the heck, we’ll throw him in the leadoff spot. It has worked out well.”
Bader went 4-14 this weekend with a home run and a double, bringing a different look to the leadoff spot after Dalton Guthrie filled it for the first 59 games of the year. Guthrie hurt his wrist in the SEC Tournament semifinal, and although the freshman returned on Friday, O’Sullivan admitted that his wrist was holding him back some.
That sparked Bader’s move, and it could help the Florida offense stay hot in Super Regionals next week.
“You always want to feel good about yourself. He’s feeling better about himself,” O’Sullivan said.
GAINESVILLE REGIONAL TEAM: Florida catcher J.J. Schwarz was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Gainesville Regional. The Gators also had outfielder Buddy Reed, outfielder Harrison Bader, designated hitter Jeremy Vasquez and pitcher A.J. Puk on the All-Tournament Team.