Junior starter and #6 overall pick A.J Puk was not at his best. His control was errant and his frustration visible, as the Gators continue to experience questionable balls-and-strikes calls this weekend. Puk (3.2 IP, H, 6 K, 6 BB) pitched himself into difficult situations in every inning in which he featured, walking six and hitting another. His pitch count was extremely high given the amount of outs was able to record himself and it was an unfortunate performance in what will surely be his last appearance at McKethan Stadium.
Puk held a one run lead when he exited the game in the fourth, that came when shortstop Dalton Guthrie (3-5, 2 R) scored on a wild pitch from Florida Stater starter Cole Sands (L 6-7, 4.13). Sand (3.1 IP, 5 H, ER, 4 K, 2 BB) was sharp otherwise and was in the game only one less out than the much more renowned Puk. Unfortunately for the Seminoles, O’Sullivan had the luxury of calling on another first rounder to see out the effort and junior Dane Dunning (W 4.1 IP, 4 H, 5 K) was as stunning as ever.
Dunning, who was part of the losing effort in Saturday’s game talked about e and his teammates rebounded.
“I think it gives our pitching staff a lot of confidence just knowing that we may have times when we don’t pitch as well, but the next day we can come out and do what we do. It helps us,” Dunning said.
First baseman Pete Alonso (2-4, 2 R, K) doubled the lead in the third inning with yet another home run since his return from injury before the game was put out of reach in the fifth. Not to be outdone, sophomore J.J. Schwarz (2-3, R, 2B, HR, 5 RBI) smashed a career-first grand slam out of the park in left-center. The game would continue on for several hours, but this was the moment that the tickets to Omaha were booked. The Seminoles did not recover from Schwarz’s blast, mustering just one hit in each of the next three innings before closer Shaun Anderson (IP, 2 K) put the #12 ranked team in the land out of their misery.
“Going into the at-bat, there’s a lot running through my mind,” Schwarz said of his four run dinger. “When I step in the box, I just try to take a moment to myself and just clear my mind and focus on one pitch. I knew he was going to throw a slider eventually just because I did a scouting report on him. I got one over the plate and one that I liked, and I just put a swing on it.”
From the beginning, the expectations for this season were clear. Last season’s team was close, exiting in the national semifinal, and this team is clearly and tangibly better. Many scouts are calling this the most talented college baseball team ever and with endorsements like that, nothing short of the program’s first national championship will suffice. Although it has not been as smooth a ride as we might have hoped for, only seven other teams in the land can deny O’Sullivan and his Gators from the crowning achievement in college baseball.
The number one label has been like a badge of honor for this team knowing that they are going to get everyone’s best. Because of that, some weren’t too concerned when losing game one.
“We’re the No. 1 team in the country for a reason,” junior centerfielder Buddy Reed said after the game. “If you look at our record, we’re 52-14, so that pretty much speaks for itself. We play to win every game. If we lose one, so what, and obviously in this situation we lost the first, so we had to come back and win two. The message was let loose, play hard and have fun. Don’t take it for granted and just go out there and do your best. Everyone has a job, and everybody has goals. We definitely achieved them this year, and that was our mindset going into these past few games -- play for each other and play for the program.”
Having survived the most calamitous Super Regional weekend in tournament history, the Gators will arrive in Nebraska as the overwhelming favorites. Only two other teams in Omaha are national seeds and the bracket has set up nicely for the #1 team in the land. While the Gators will hope for more consistency from the plate, encouraging performances from Guthrie, Schwarz, and Alonso give Gators fans reason to believe that the long wait for a national championship could finally be over soon.
“I just couldn’t be more proud of the way they played,” O’Sullivan said after the game. “Obviously we lost a tough one on Saturday night, and to come back and throw two shutouts, that’s very, very hard to do. Obviously their lineup has been very good the last three weeks. I just can’t say enough about our team. We had the No. 1 ranking going into the season, and we got some guys that are going to be high drafts, and it’s difficult to juggle those things. I couldn’t be more proud of the way they handled the expectations from a team standpoint and how selfless they were individually. I’m just proud we have an opportunity to go back out to Omaha and have these guys experience it again.”
For several players it was the last time they will play a baseball game at McKethan Stadium. By means of the Major League Baseball Draft, several future millionaires will leave school early and play baseball professionally. Buddy Reed is one and as he entered the field in the top of the ninth to finish things off, his emotions got the best of him then and in his last at-bat in the bottom of the eighth. Tears came to his eyes and he bent over to gather himself before hauling in one of the final three outs of the night.
“They’re kind of indescribable,” he said when trying to describe his feelings as he took his last at-bat. “I took a moment to do my cross, take a quick prayer and just step in the box knowing that what happened, that was my last at-bat. I just told all the guys I loved them. I told Sully I loved him. Through all the stuff that we’ve been through this year and the three years I’ve been here, that was my last time to play at the Mac. It was something really special, and it means a lot to me.”
But now, it is off to Omaha. The first of the big preseason wish list items for this number one seeded team. They return from a season ago with several guys that know what to expect when they get there. Those players have been anticipating this time for a while.
“Omaha is so much fun,” Schwarz said. “From our experience last year, we wanted to go back so bad just because we knew what it was like. We were so close to playing in the championship series, and anything can happen then. We’re just really excited to be back and see what we can do.”