The first step begins on Wednesday when the Gators face Miami in an elimination game at 8 p.m. on ESPN. History is on Florida’s side for this matchup. The Gators beat Miami 15-3 on Saturday and have won 20 of the last 25 meetings between the two teams. Kevin O’Sullivan is also 7-0 against Miami in the NCAA Tournament while ending the Hurricanes’ season in 2009, 2010 and 2011. However, those numbers don’t mean much going into Wednesday.
Florida will send freshman right-hander Alex Faedo (5-1, 3.36 ERA) to the mound against Miami junior right-hander Enrique Sosa (7-4, 4.07 ERA). The Gators faced Sosa in the finale of the regular season series. He went six innings, allowing seven hits and two walks while striking out three hitters. The knockout blow came when Florida left fielder Harrison Bader hit a long home run off Sosa in the fourth inning, giving the Gators a 2-1 lead they would hold until the end.
Miami saw Faedo for 1.1 innings of relief in the opener of the February series, and he threw 1.1 shutout innings while allowing two hits. He was hit hard, as Willie Abreu doubled to right-center field in the eighth inning of a tie game, but Florida shortstop Richie Martin threw out Zack Collins at the plate on the relay throw to keep the game tied.
Both bullpens are fresh and will likely play a big role in the outcome.
The most important thing for Florida is that the offense gets back to form. After scoring 68 runs in their first six NCAA Tournament games, the Gators were shut out by Virginia starter Brandon Waddell and closer Josh Sborz on Monday. Florida struggled to get the ball out of the infield and fell to the losers’ bracket with a 1-0 loss.
If the offense can rebound and Faedo has a strong start, the Gators should be able to stay alive in the tournament.
But what would happen if the Gators get through Miami? The path to the championship series becomes a lot clearer.
Florida would have to beat Virginia on Friday and Saturday while the Cavaliers would have to win just one of those games to advance to the championship. Assuming the Gators can get to Friday, they would have ace Logan Shore (10-6, 2.55 ERA) on regular rest and likely getting the start against Virginia. On Saturday, the Gators would have to figure out their pitching. It would be too early to bring A.J. Puk back after he pitched on Monday, so they’d likely have to start Dane Dunning (5-2, 3.88 ERA) or extend one of the other relievers that would be fresh for that game.
The Cavaliers could go with ace Connor Jones (7-2, 3.05 ERA) on Friday or save him for a potential Saturday game. The intriguing scenario involves left-hander Nathan Kirby, who has been out for two months with a lat injury.
Kirby was the ace before the injury and was 5-2 with a 2.28 ERA. He hasn’t pitched in two months and likely wouldn’t be able to go as deep into the game as he would have if his strength was built up.
It is unlikely that the Gators would see Waddell again. Since he pitched on Monday, the Cavaliers probably couldn’t bring him back for the Friday or Saturday game unless it was for a short stint in relief.
The losers’ bracket is never the ideal way to make the championship series, especially because it usually wrecks a team’s pitching staff. It would likely do the same thing to the Gators before a potential championship series berth, but it’s not impossible for the Gators to get there.