Florida's Jackson Kowar celebrates after recording the final out of the 2017 CWS (Aaron Fitt)


Gators Finally Reach Promised Land

College World Series

OMAHA — The last time Florida was in the CWS Finals, in 2011, Kevin O’Sullivan had to watch from the first-base dugout at TD Ameritrade Park as SEC rival South Carolina celebrated a national championship. After shaking hands with South Carolina’s players and coaches, O’Sullivan turned to a couple of reporters and said, “We’ll be back. We’ll be back.”

It was a simple statement of fact. It wasn’t arrogant — it was just the truth. By that point, O’Sullivan had already built a machine in Gainesville, and the Gators would in fact return to the College World Series for a third straight season in 2012, then make back-to-back trips again in 2015-16.

Those teams were all supremely talented, and the Gators entered the CWS as the clear favorite to win it all in 2012 and 2016, when they were the No. 1 national seed. But they wouldn’t get back to the Finals again until this year — with their least offensive team of the O’Sullivan era, and a team with less pitching depth than the Gators are used to having.

Despite all that, Florida entered the season ranked No. 2 in the D1Baseball Top 25, and it entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 3 national seed, because its starting pitching and defense were elite. And those strengths loomed large for Florida in Omaha, as the Gators allowed just 14 runs in six games on their way to the first national title in program history. The Gators led the CWS field with a 2.33 ERA while fielding .991 in Omaha, and not even LSU’s potent offense could crack Florida’s elite run prevention machine in a two-game Finals sweep. The Tigers threatened late but could not break through in Florida’s 6-1 victory Tuesday night, clinching the title.

Florida celebrates its first national championship (Eric Sorenson)

“Obviously our starting pitching was outstanding, but when you go five games without making an error and you don’t beat yourself, it just makes it more difficult on the other team that you’re not giving them more outs, they’re working with 27 outs,” O’Sullivan said. “And we take pride in our defense. We take pride in how we play fundamentally … And we handled the ball. It goes back to recruiting. We recruit a lot of baseball players. Dalton Guthrie and (Jonathan) India and Deacon Liput were all high school shortstops and Christian Hicks was a high school shortstop. We tried to recruit players that have a high baseball IQ.”

That might be what separated this group of champions more than anything else aside from its obviously overpowering starting pitching. Florida might not have gaudy offensive statistics, but its players know how to execute offensively and defensively, and they keep cool heads under pressure. So when LSU made mistakes Tuesday, Florida capitalized — and the Gators gave up very few free bases of their own.

LSU committed three errors in the first two innings, helping Florida jump out to a 2-0 lead. Credit first baseman JJ Schwarz and second baseman Deacon Liput with delivering RBI singles after the Tiger miscues opened the door. Liput led the offense with two hits and three RBIs, including a two-run single in the eighth that essentially iced it for the Gators, highlighting a four-run frame.

“I think something that made this team so special was — I was actually talking about it with my dad — in each and every game we won, it seemed like someone new stepped up,” Liput said. “I think what made our team so special was you never knew who that person was going to be.”

Indeed, Florida probably wouldn’t have predicted a month ago that freshman righthander Tyler Dyson would start in the CWS Finals clincher and earn the victory with six innings of three-hit ball, but that’s what happened. Back in the fall, O’Sullivan said that one of the reason the Gators are successful on the recruiting trail was that players know they’re going to get opportunities to play as freshmen. Florida recruits talented players and puts them in key roles right away.

But it took some time for Dyson to develop into one of the crucial cogs on this roster. O’Sullivan loved Dyson’s arm strength in the fall, but he’s only been pitching for two years — he still works exclusively out of the stretch, because he hasn’t learned how to work out of a full windup yet. Over the course of the season, Dyson learned to harness his mid-90s fastball and excellent late-breaking slider, and he became a go-to bullpen option alongside All-America closer Michael Byrne.

Florida righty Tyler Dyson (Eric Sorenson)

But after the Gators were forced to use ace Alex Faedo in an if-necessary game on Saturday, they had to adjust Dyson’s role, calling upon him to make just his second career start — with the national title on the line. He lasted just 1.2 innings in his first start, back on April 11 vs. Florida State.

“I think this start went a little better than my first one,” Dyson said. “But just being out there and helping these guys win and watching what the pitchers did this week, learning from that. And I didn’t get much sleep last night thinking about this game.”

But he sure didn’t look tired on Tuesday, as he held his 93-95 mph velocity for six innings and did a good job locating that pitch along with his 83-85 slider, which was effective against lefties as well as righties. He held the Tigers scoreless on two hits and two walks through six of innings before allowing a leadoff single in the seventh and exiting for Byrne.

The Tigers would get on the scoreboard in that frame and would push the tying run to third base with nobody out. With men on the corners, Mike Papierski grounded into what looked like a 4-6-3 double play, as the Gators conceded the tying run. But Jake Slaughter slid clearly out of the basepath and collided with shortstop Dalton Guthrie, and he was called for interference, forcing the runner to return to third base. Byrne then stranded him, keeping the Gators ahead 2-1.

“We talk to the baserunners all the time; they know the rule. They know what they’re supposed to do: slide directly into the base,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “Their buttocks and legs have to hit the ground first. You can slide through the bag as long as it’s in a straight line to second base. The umpire said we didn’t do that. And I don’t know if that was the correct call or not.”

It was, and it was a key moment in the game. But the Tigers put together another threat an inning later, getting men on the corners with no outs once again, still trailing by a run. This time, Byrne struck out Antoine Duplantis for the first out, and O’Sullivan summoned Jackson Kowar out of the bullpen to face the dangerous Greg Deichmann. On the first pitch, Deichmann hit a hard chopper to to the right side, and JJ Schwarz went to his right to snare it, then fired a strike to the plate to throw out the baserunner. The next batter would line out to center to end the inning.

“It was a heads-up play,” O’Sullivan said of Schwarz’s throw to the plate. “The thing is he bounced off aggressively, and he threw the ball on the right side of the bag. The ball was thrown on the first-base side, he’s safe. Made a perfect throw, quick feet. Probably saved the game, to be honest with you.”

It was a little thing — make the right snap judgment, throw to the correct side of the plate — but it was characteristic of these Gators, and it turned out to be a big thing.

And then the Gators strung together some good at-bats to put the game away with that four-run ninth. When all was said and done, the oft-maligned Florida offense came up big, too.

“We got better offensively. Even though after today’s game we only have one guy hitting .300 — I think somebody told me that at the end of the game — but we were hitting like .235 as a team at the beginning of March. But we got progressively better,” O’Sullivan said. “We figured out what we needed to do to score runs. We hit and ran more than we normally have; we ran the bases more aggressively, stole bases, and we focused on having a better approach with two outs and two strikes. And we had runners in scoring position. We’ve just got to have our best at-bats and be smart at what we’re doing.”

Florida’s outstanding coaching staff — O’Sullivan, Craig Bell and Brad Weitzel — has been together for 10 years, and they deserve a whole lot of credit for adapting with their personnel this year. Florida has often been a home run-hitting juggernaut over the last decade, but this year it needed to shift its style. By the end of the year, this was a functional, capable lineup.

Because of the modest offensive numbers, Florida somehow managed to fly under the radar just a bit, considering it was the SEC co-champion and the No. 3 national seed. The Gators simply weren’t as flashy as some of the other teams in Omaha, and maybe they didn’t have as many colorful characters as some of the others. But they had a winning chemistry, and a roster chock full of winning players.

“I think just having some of those veterans like Alex (Faedo), Mike (Rivera) and JJ — three straight trips to Omaha is all they know, that’s all they’ve known here,” said Kowar, a sophomore righty. “Sometimes we appear pretty businesslike, but it’s a lot of confidence, I think, getting some one-run wins early in the season and having Michael Byrne. That guy has been the hero this year for us.

“So I think having that guy at the end of the pen is why we have so much confidence to win so many one-run games, and that’s why you come together as a team — and winning got contagious for us there. It’s an unbelievable group of guys, and probably my favorite team I’ve been on by far.”

This team was built to win with pitching and defense, and that formula worked to perfection. Faedo and Brady Singer started twice apiece and straight-up dealt twice apiece. Faedo, the CWS Most Outstanding Player, went 2-0, 0.00 with 22 strikeouts and six walks in 14.1 innings in Omaha. Singer went 2-0, 2.57 with a 21-3 strikeout-walk mark in 14 innings. And Dyson  and Kowar both performed at a high level in their starts, too.

Florida’s Alex Faedo accepts the CWS MOP trophy (Aaron Fitt)

So Florida’s starting pitching was extremely special, and it turned in an extremely special performance in Omaha. Of course, the Gators have had special talent on the mound plenty of times before in the O’Sullivan era.

This time, they also had the right mojo, and got the right breaks, and simply played the best baseball at the perfect time.

“I don’t know if there was a defining moment, but I did sense that there was a sense of togetherness in the locker room, and knowing we’ll never give up,” O’Sullivan said. “What happens when we have pitching like we do, there’s never like a really long stretch of losses. You’ll lose a game or two but then you get back on the winning side of things because your pitching is what it is. And we’ve always played good defense.”

Throw it all together — marquee starting pitching, a couple of stars in the bullpen, a team full of grinders with high baseball IQ, a reliable playmaking defense, an offense that got better as the year went along and a very tight-knit clubhouse — and you have the ingredients for the first national championship in the history of Florida baseball.

And they’ll be back. They’ll be back.

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