LSU's Zack Hess


LSU vs. Florida: What’s Different This Time?


OMAHA — The CWS Finals has quite the Southeastern Conference flavor to it this week.

Though it shouldn’t come as a surprise, LSU and Florida will do battle for the national title today, and, potentially, for two more days. The Tigers entered the season ranked No. 6 in the D1Baseball Top 25, while the Gators were at No. 2. Therefore, we’ve got a rather chalky title series after the Gators disposed of TCU and LSU double-dipped previously unbeatable Oregon State.

These two teams are familiar foes. The Gators took two of three from the Tigers in Gainesville, Fla., earlier this season. While Alex Lange and Alex Faedo had a big-time showdown in the series opener, Brady Singer, tonight’s starter, dominated LSU, striking out four and allowing just a run on six hits in a complete game performance. LSU saved face in the series by having success against UF righthander Jackson Kowar, heading back to Baton Rouge with a 10-6 victory.

The Gators and Tigers tied for the SEC regular season crown, and while the two would’ve loved to hash it all out in the conference tournament, Arkansas derailed that opportunity with an incredible offensive performance against Singer.

So, when we look back at that series between the Gators and Tigers way back at the end of March, what’s different about the two clubs entering the CWS Finals?

1. Florida’s bullpen is more stable

Michael Byrne, FloridaMichael Byrne has developed into a weapon for the Gators

One of the chief concerns UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan had back in late March was the stability of his bullpen. The Gators simply didn’t have a strong back-end reliever. Against the Tigers, righty Michael Byrne allowed two runs in 1.2 innings of work, and was up and down much of the first half of the season. However, Byrne settled into a groove as the season progressed and developed into one of the nation’s premier relievers. The same goes for fellow righty Tyler Dyson. Dyson struggled with his secondary stuff and fastball command for the first half of the season, but now he’s a mid-90s arm who consistently commands the zone. UF still doesn’t have an incredibly deep bullpen, but those two guys have become premier arms. Dyson, by the way, could very well start at some point in the Finals.

2. Florida hasn’t faced LSU’s Zack Hess

One of the big storylines in Omaha has been the emergence of LSU’s chief psycho, Hess. Hess was the midweek starter earlier this season and started against Southeastern Louisiana before the Tigers traveled to Gainesville. So, he didn’t throw against the Gators. There’s no doubt that Hess has been the big key for LSU while here in Omaha. He enters the game with a mean streak, has consistently sat 94-97 with his fastball with a filthy slider, though you do wonder how LSU uses him in the series opener after his velocity was down against Oregon State on Saturday. With that said, he’s struck out 10, walked three and allowed no runs in 4.2 innings of relief work at the CWS.

3. LSU’s Zach Watson is a premier player now

Zach Watson’s rise has been a huge help to the Tigers.

When the two teams met earlier this season, Watson was a good role player, but he wasn’t a guy who had the ability to take over a game and be a fire-starter. Well, Watson is that guy now. Defensively, there’s a lot of electricity inside Watson with his ability to track down balls and show excellent closing speed. Meanwhile, he’s been terrific out here from an offensive standing, leading the Tigers with a .421 average, a double, a home run and two RBIs. The closest hitter to Watson in batting average? LSU’s Mike Papierski at .286. The good news for LSU? It’ll have Watson for at least two more seasons.

4. Florida is more consistent across the board

Florida is playing at a much higher level than it was back in March.

While these two teams are playing for the national title, the Gators, at least, had some struggles in the early part of SEC play. Sure, they took two of three from the Tigers, but they were scuffled before and after the series. For instance, UF began conference play by going on the road and getting swept by Auburn. Then, a couple of weeks after the LSU series, the Gators dropped a surprising home series to Tennessee. Florida is now playing a much better brand of baseball, having not lost a true series since that series loss to the Volunteers. The one thing to keep an eye on the next two days is the health of Dalton Guthrie and Nelson Maldonado. Earlier this season against the Tigers, Guthrie was the designated hitter in all three games, and there’s a chance he might not even have that much of a role with the recurring back spasms. We’ll have to see how that situation progresses. As for Maldonado, he had a strong series against LSU in March, but has been walking gingerly the past few days and could be hampered after sliding back into third base a few days ago.

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